Since the Conservative government led by Stephen Harper has been in power in Ottawa, the Canadian Food Safety Inspection Agency (CFIA) has seen annual increases in its inspector ranks.
Also there is a yearly scare about food safety jobs that gets pushed along by government unions with speculation about cuts that might occur as Canada goes through its budget process.
This year, Canadians are being told 100 food inspector positions might be cut from the federal government’s budget. Might the scare tactics this year be for real? Maybe.
To understand Canada’s budget ritual as it affects food safety, it’s important to know the numbers to begin with. As of March 2011, CFIA employed a total of 7,544. Its ranks have increased in every year since 1999.
As in any large organization, some jobs at CFIA are support positions that do not directly involve food safety. Human resources, accounting and other administrative positions are non-food safety jobs. To sort all that out, CFIA provides totals for its inspection staff and breaks out the field inspection staff separately, too.
Those totals have both increased annually under Harper’s government, at least so far. Total inspection staff stood at 4,165 in 2006, the year when Harper was elected Prime Minister. It has risen to 4,336 in 2007; to 4,571 in 2008; to 4,610 in 2009; to 4,703 in 2010, and to 4,898 in 2011.
The number of front line inspectors, including those assigned to work in specific food processing plants, stood at 2,823 in 2006, rising to 2,914 in 2007; 3,030 in 2008; 3,228 in 2009; 3,342 in 2010, and 3,502 in 2011.
Finance Minister James M. Flaherty kicked off this year’s process on March 29 with the annual budget speech. He said Canada’s federal government “will return to balanced budgets” and will do so, in part, with cuts of “less than 2 percent of federal spending overall.”
The reason this year might be different than past years is that Conservatives for the first time in 2011 won an outright majority in Parliament. That means the Conservatives do not have to rely on any minor parties in order to enact their policies.
The Public Service Alliance of Canada, the union that represents 150,000 federal employees, said the proposed budget is why 5,561 of its members in 23 government departments have now received notices their jobs could be affected.
The union’s John Gordon said people in 344 jobs at CFIA are among those receiving the notices. Bob Kingston, president of the Agricultural Union of PSAC, says 100 of the 344 jobs are likely to be those held by inspectors.
But as they have in past years, Agricultural Minister Gerry Ritz and CFIA’s George Da Pont, issued statements designed to persuade employees not to worry all that much about budget cuts.
“The Agency will not make any changes that would in any way place the health and safety of Canadians at risk,” Ritz said. “In fact, (the proposed budget) includes an additional $51 million over two years to enhance food safety, building upon the $100 million in last year’s budget.”
Ritz said since 2006, the Harper government has funded hiring 733 net new inspection professionals and that CFIA’s priority is ensuring safe food for Canadian families.
Some of the increases in the CFIA inspection ranks came as a result of the independent inquiry into the 2008 Listeria outbreak that killed at least 22 mostly elderly Canadians. While the source of the outbreak was a private company — a Maple Leaf Foods processing plant in Toronto — the inquiry also blamed a weak response by Harper’s then-young government.
CBC News reports that the owner of an import meat inspection facility says more inspectors are needed in the Windsor area, where he says only one of 10 inbound trucks from the U.S. and Mexico gets inspected. By contrast, he says almost all Canadian trucks entering the U.S. are inspected. CFIA did not respond to the report.
The notices do not automatically mean the individuals receiving them are going to lose their jobs. And the government’s plan does not have Canada reaching a balanced budget until 2015-16. The current deficit is less than $30 billion.