At some date soon in February or March, Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty may follow the tradition of putting on new shoes and walking into the House of Commons with a proposed new federal budget.
Ever since it received the report of an independent inquiry into the deadly 2008 Listeria outbreak that was traced back to Maple Leaf Foods in Toronto, Ottawa has approved budgets that have favored food safety with more financial support.
Now, the tide may go the other way.
The Conservative government has to deal with a projected budget deficit totaling $31 billion. It also wants to increase spending on trade, research and development, and cut red tape to help businesses.
Government departments, including the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), have been asked to work on budgets cuts of 5 to 10 percent. Budget cuts at CFIA could take away 234 jobs, cutting the agency’s current annual spending of $744 million by about $21.5 million.
The union representing Canada’s federal meat inspectors held a news conference Monday to loudly complain about the possible cuts that they claim would take CFIA back to pre-Listeria outbreak levels by taking away 170 inspectors hired after the Listeria outbreak.
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, in an email response to the union news conference, said, “Canadian families can be assured that the safety of our food supply will not be affected as federal departments and agencies look for ways to more efficient and more financially prudent with taxpayer’s dollars.”
Since 2008, Ottawa added $75 million to implement the recommendations of Sheila Weatherill, the independent investigator who looked into the deadly outbreak that killed 22 mostly elderly Canadians.
It then added $13 million in 2010 for added meat inspection capacity, and $100 million in 2011 for increased scientific and technology capacity, with $18 million going directly to CFIA.
As of March 2011, CFIA’s total staff, including inspection staff, “as well as additional essential positions relating to audit and evaluation, legal, human resources and corporate services” stood at 7,544, up from 6,961 in March 2008.
Overall, that’s a bump of 583 employees.
In March 2008, inspection staff at CFIA totaled 4,571. Three years later it was up 327 to 4,898 total inspection staffers in March 2011.
That translates to 56 percent of the new hires being in inspection.
But it is not all about new hires.
The number of front-line inspectors and inspection manger working in the field in food processing plants was up 472, to 3,502, in March 2011, from 3,030 in March 2008.
That means 81 percent of the new hires have ended up in field positions, apparently through both new hires and new assignments.
Food Safety News has asked CFIA to update the employment totals for 2012 and the project has been assigned, but the latest figures are not yet available.
The possible cuts outlined in CFIA’s funding estimates “would leave the food safety program reeling and severely diminish an inspector’s ability to complete assignments,” asserted Bob Kingston, the union president said. He said any cuts increase the risk of another major food-borne outbreak.
He was joined by Karen Clark, whose 89-year-old mother, Frances died from listeriosis after eating contaminated ready-to-eat meats processed by Maple Leaf Foods. Clark says she fears Canadians have forgotten about the Listeria outbreak.
CFIA investigations most recently peaked in the April 2008 to March 2009 period at 3,439, before declining to 2,956 during April 2010 to March 2011.
Jobs and housing are much stronger in Canada, but its economy is stuck between Europe’s instability and USA’s weak recovery. Since the Conservatives took over in 2006, Canada has added about 33,000 federal jobs at a cost of $75 billion.
Meanwhile, the minority New Democratic Party (NDP) is asking Prime Minister Stephen Harper to just spare food safety of any cuts.
While vocal in the aftermath of the outbreak and during the independent investigation, neither Michael H. McCain, Maple Leaf’s president and chief executive officer, nor Randall Huffman, the Toronto company’s chief food safety officer, responded to invitations from Food Safety News to comment about the possible cuts.
Huffman, the former head of the American Meat Institute Foundation, joined Maple Leaf after the 2008 outbreak.