The union representing federal food safety inspectors plans to ask Maple Leaf Foods and other processors to lobby for a reversal in proposed cuts to the federal food safety program.
In its 2011-12 report on plans and priorities, a three-year expenditure plan each government department and agency must provide, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said it expects to pull back its food safety program spending from $351.5 million in 2011-12 to $330.4 million in 2013-14.
The agency also forecasts cutting its total roster of full-time equivalent positions, across all programs, from 6,914 in 2011-12 to 6,680 in 2012-13.
"The decrease in Food Safety Program is due to sunsetting funds for listeriosis and increased inspection in meat processing establishments," the agency wrote. "These short-term initiatives were funded for two years and three years respectively and will be reviewed with respect to options for the longer term."
Spending for projects approved under Canada’s Economic Action Plan — the federal economic stimulus program launched in 2009 — will by then also be completed, the agency added.
Those food safety initiatives had been "put in place to shore up a weak inspection system and to address a chronic shortage of inspectors after the Maple Leaf Foods listeriosis outbreak killed 23 Canadians in 2008," the Agriculture Union-PSAC, which represents inspectors, said in a release Monday.
"This looks like an exercise to make regulation cheaper, not safer or smarter. Ottawa should worry about undermining public confidence with food safety cuts because that will be bad for the industry," union president Bob Kingston said.
The union also warned that the CFIA’s previous move to increase frequency of inspections was made "in direct response to U.S. regulators who demanded that Ottawa station inspectors in slaughter and meat processing facilities every 12-hour shift in order to meet more stringent U.S. requirements."
"Ottawa’s current plans to cut funding the CFIA needs to meet U.S. inspection requirements will send warning signals to regulators south of the border," Kingston said.
The Agriculture Union said it plans to campaign to recruit "major players" in the food sector, starting with Maple Leaf, to oppose the CFIA cuts.
"To begin, we will be inviting our supporters to urge (company CEO) Michael McCain to tell Ottawa to reconsider these cuts," Kingston said. "Maple Leaf Foods is symbolic of a failed food safety system. Their company suffered tremendous reputational and economic damage when the food safety system failed Canadians."
"This news will only further erode Canadians’ confidence in their food safety system," NDP food safety critic Malcolm Allen said in a separate release Monday. "It is irresponsible and shocking that a country like Canada would allow this type of risk to be present in our food supply."
"The Conservatives cannot speak about accepting the recommendations of the Weatherill report (on the listeriosis outbreak), pat themselves on the back for appointing 170 new inspectors and then, while no one is looking, cut staff and funding," Liberal agriculture critic Frank Valeriote said Tuesday.
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz "must act responsibly and inform Canadians how many inspectors will be cut, what reductions will occur to the frequency of inspection of food processing facilities and what plans are in place for a future, food-borne crisis," Valeriote said.