Fewer inspectors could lead to more Manitoba food-borne illnesses, union says

The union representing Canada's meat inspectors says slaughter facilities in Manitoba are severely understaffed and public safety is at risk.

Cuts to Canadian Food Inspection Agency could harm food security in Manitoba, union says

Fewer meat inspectors could lead to an increased risk of contaminated foods. (istock)

The union representing Canada's meat inspectors says slaughter facilities in Manitoba are severely understaffed and public safety is at risk.

Union president Bob Kingston said slaughterhouses in the province typically operate with one-third fewer inspectors than required.

"We know from a national survey a few weeks ago … what voters want, and what government is delivering, is vastly different," Kingston told CBC News.

"Canadians don't trust the food industry to police its own safety practices, yet the government is relying more heavily on food production companies to self-police."

He said the federal government is cutting $35 million from the budget of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).

Kingston said that means there will be 273 fewer inspectors across Canada. He said that means it's just a matter of time before another major food-borne illness outbreak.

Tainted cold cuts from a Maple Leaf plant in Toronto led to an outbreak of listeriosis that killed 22 people across the country in 2008.

Three years ago, meat tainted by the E. coli bacteria prompted the XL Foods meat-packing plant in southern Alberta to recall 1.8 million kilograms of beef in Canada and the United States. No one died, but health officials confirmed that 18 people tested positive for the bacteria linked to the meat.

"The staffing review found the shortage in the four major Manitoba slaughter facilities so acute that inspectors working in the province's meat processing facilities are often borrowed to cover glaring inspection gaps in the slaughter establishments," said Kingston.

The Brandon-based Maple Leaf plant can process about 18,000 pigs a day. Dunn-Rite's Winnipeg location processes about 250 chickens daily, which is on par with Canada's line-production safety standards for poultry plants. That same standard is set at 144 chickens a day in the U.S., Kingston said.

But that same Maple Leaf plant operates at 34 per cent below minimum inspection staff levels, while Dunn-Rite in Winnipeg operates at 60 per cent below, Kingston said. The staffing standards are set by the CFIA.

"We're finding that the shortages in Manitoba are fairly consistent across the country," said Kingston, adding he believes the government is "in denial" about the shortages facing CFIA inspectors.

Chris Aylward, vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, has urged voters to consider food safety when casting a ballot in the October federal election.

"It can't be much worse than what it is today," Aylward said. "For those voters who expect more than what the federal government is delivering on food safety, now is the perfect time to voice your concerns prior to the Oct. 19 election."

With files from CBC Manitoba


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