Cuts to Canada's food inspection programs have created a "double standard," where meat sold to Canadians is not as well inspected than that destined for export, according to the union that represents inspectors.
"These are more than just numbers on paper," Agriculture Union president Bob Kingston said.
"Lives are at risk, [there's] the real likelihood that people will die. And I hope they wake up to this."
'It's all about money, or rather, the lack of it.' - Marianne Hladun, Public Service Alliance of Canada
At a news conference in Edmonton today, Kingston said since January, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has quietly rolled back inspections at meat plants in northern Alberta. Increased inspections were put in place following a 2008 listeriosis outbreak tied to Maple Leaf Foods products, which resulted in 22 deaths.
"There's no public debate. There isn't even an industry debate about what's going on. It's the rollback of those commitments to protect Canadians," he said.
He said the CFIA has cut the presence of inspectors in facilities from five days a week to three – but only in plants that produce meat for the domestic market. The presence of inspectors in plants inspecting for export have stayed the same.
"With available resources that CFIA has, the only way they can meet American inspection standards in order to maintain access to the U.S. market is to shortchange inspection of meat for Canadian consumers," Kingston said.
"It's really that simple."
Lilydale under reduced inspections
The news conference was held less than a week after the CFIA announced a recall of chicken products in Western Canada and Ontario over fears of Listeria contamination.
Marianne Hladun, a vice-president with Public Service Alliance of Canada, said the chicken came from an Edmonton Lilydale plant, which was one of the facilities with reduced inspections
"CFIA officials are candid to us about the reason. It's all about money, or rather, the lack of it," she said.
Kingston said the CFIA has also cut sanitation inspections by 50 per cent and pre-operation inspections by 30 per cent, changes that affect plants producing for both domestic and international markets. He said those changes affect the parts of the process responsible for the majority of outbreaks.
The problem is not confined to northern Alberta. Meat plants in Calgary and Lethbridge, Alta., often work without enough inspectors to properly inspect the meat, according to the union. Kingston called on the federal government to boost funding for food inspections in the next budget.
"This government has talked a lot about protecting Canadians," he said.
"This is serious stuff."
Canadian meat gets 'different attention'
The CFIA said while the number of inspectors may "fluctuate," it spends significantly more on food safety programs since 2008.
"Inspection work focuses on areas of highest risk first, the areas of focus may change during the year based on emergencies and shifting priorities," the agency wrote in an email sent to CBC News.
The CFIA went on to say that it isn't unusual for countries to have different inspection standards for imported food, and that differences between Canadian and American standards does not mean Canadians are at risk.
"It is important to note that differences in inspection procedures are trade related, but not food safety related," it said.
"In fact, the Conference Board of Canada rates Canada's food safety system number 1 out of 17 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries."
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, a University of Guelph professor who studies food safety, said the changes do not mean Canadian meat is less safe to eat.
"I don't think the health of Canadians has been compromised," he said.
"Canadian-destined meat doesn't get less attention. It just gets different attention."
Charlebois served on the CFIA's national expert board until 2011. He is currently a member of the Global Food Traceability Center's Advisory Council, based in Washington, D.C.
He said given the CFIA's resources, the agency's changes are the "right way" to approach inspections. Reducing inspections of plants making domestically bound meat was done because the government has confidence in those facilities. Putting resources towards protecting exports is a vital task, he argued.
"That relationship between Canada and the United States is key for our sector, for our economy," he said.
Canada has more than 3,000 food inspectors, Charlebois said, a much higher ratio than what is found in other countries. Instead of hiring more inspectors, he thinks the government should focus on making inspections more transparent.
Keith Warriner, director of the food safety and quality assurance program at the University of Guelph, said the implication that the meat sold in Canada is unsafe is "a little bit of scare-mongering."
He said the union's argument, that fewer inspectors inherently means people are at risk, isn't true.
"If you had a policeman on every corner, yes, crime might go down," he said.
"But the better thing is, isn't it, to instill into people not to commit the crime in the first place."
Warriner pointed to events like the 2012 E. coli outbreak centred around beef from the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta., which sickened over a dozen people. He said in that case, the plant had enough inspectors, but that they were not doing the work properly.
He said a much better solution is to get the meat industry to "take ownership" of food safety.
"You can't test your way to food safety. You can't inspect your way to food safety," he said.
Instead, Warriner would like to see most of the inspection duties being handled by the plants themselves, with federal inspectors looking over a company's internal inspection records.