How effective is Canada’s meat-inspection system?
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Why are food poisonings skyrocketing? Bob Kingston has a good idea why: a hobbled meat-inspection system that’s a shadow of its former self and that struggles to keep up with the fast-changing food industry. If anything, he says, meat inspectors are even more taxed now than before the Maple Leaf disaster.
Kingston worked for almost 30 years as a federal quarantine inspector in Burnaby before becoming president of the 9,500-member Agriculture Union, which includes federal meat inspectors. Earlier this year, his union gave Canada’s food-safety system a failing grade for heeding so few of the Maple Leaf inquiry’s recommendations.
“You’re up to five or six plants per inspector. I know inspectors who have told me they are responsible for 10 plants. If they actually want enforcement, it’s way over the top,” he says.
“All you have time to do is glance at the paperwork, see if it’s fine, and race to the next plant. If you have to do an enforcement action, good luck finding time to do it.”
The problem comes down to time. It takes about 800 hours (or 20 weeks of full-time work) to meet inspection requirements for a single processed-meat plant, according to union estimates. That doesn’t include hundreds of additional hours needed for certifying imports and exports, plus leave or vacation time.
“I feel for the inspectors,” says UBC’s Allen. “Many are faced with an unruly workload. They’re really taxed right now.”
According to the Weatherill inquiry, government inspectors assigned to the Toronto Maple Leaf plant “appear to have been stressed due to their responsibilities at other plants”. In September 2009, with a possible federal election looming, Ottawa promised to hire 70 new meat inspectors to fill shortfalls identified in the inquiry. A year later, only 40 of the new positions have been filled. Much of the money for the new hires was simply taken out of other CFIA operations, Kingston says; penny-pinching at the agency is so tight that it has cancelled training initiatives and some offices have no money for pens or paper.
Even our neighbours are taking notice. Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture told Canada it wasn’t meeting U.S. standards for inspecting processed meat destined for export south of the border. It demanded that Canadian meat inspectors check up on exporting plants once every 12 hours, as U.S. standards require.
Canada increased the level of checks to that standard. Meanwhile, plants making processed meat for Canadians are inspected at the far more leisurely pace of only once a week. The CFIA says inspectors spend more time during each of their weekly inspections of the plants with Canadian-destined meat, so the total amount of inspection time is the same as for U.S.–destined meat.
Kingston says this is “highly unlikely”. He notes that the CFIA would have needed the equivalent of 50 extra full-time inspectors to meet the greater frequency of USDA-mandated inspections. If the level of inspection was really the same, he says, no new hires would have been needed.
He also says plants visited more often tend to have better safety records. “If an inspector comes once a day, a plant behaves totally differently than when they know the inspector is coming only once a week,” he says.
Because there is little money for the new hires, the extra USDA-mandated inspections have resulted in astronomical levels of overtime for the CFIA’s existing 260 processed-meat inspectors, Kingston says. The additional burden means many inspectors are now faced with an even greater workload than before 2008, he says.
It wasn’t always like this. The food-safety system and meat industry have both undergone a sea change since 1981, when Kingston became a union rep for federal agriculture department employees, including meat inspectors. (He moved to the CFIA when it was created in 1997.)
In the 1980s, beef was usually butchered by hand in a large number of small meat-processing plants spread across the country. Each one had a federal meat inspector assigned to oversee it full-time. Mechanization of slaughterhouse operations and processing started to transform the industry in the late 1980s and 1990s. Machines run by low-wage operators started to replace trained butchers. The small plants were consolidated into fewer, large operations—some on a massive scale. One plant in Alberta processes 2,000 beef carcasses in a single day. Another in Manitoba goes through 10,000 pigs daily.
The machines might be more efficient, but they’re also less able than a human hand to butcher an animal in a way that avoids contaminating it with bacteria-laden feces, Kingston says. Also, when there was a bacteria outbreak at one of the smaller plants, it was usually pretty limited in scope. “Now if you do half a day’s run [of tainted product] out of one of these big plants, you’ve contaminated half the continent,” Kingston says.
These were also the lean years of Brian Mulroney’s budget cutbacks and deregulation. Ottawa was only too happy to acquiesce to industry demands to reduce the burden of meat inspection. Inspectors now found themselves responsible for several facilities each, as opposed to one, even as the plants ballooned in size.
At the same time, inspectors got go-easy marching orders. Previously, when inspectors saw a problem—like unsanitary conditions—they’d pull the plug on operations or slow production until the issue was fixed.
Starting in 2005, the federal government took the deregulation a step further by quietly implementing a new food-safety system that shifted much of the burden of policing to the meat industry. Instead of shutting down a dirty facility, inspectors were instructed to issue a “corrective action request”. A meat processor would now usually have 14 days to respond with an explanation of how it would deal with the issue—and would, in most cases, have another 60 days to implement changes. Companies can request time extensions past the initial 60 days. They are routinely granted, Kingston says.
An inspector who shuts down a meat plant today “would probably be disciplined unless he has approval from five levels of management. He would be accused of being overzealous,” Kingston says.
The new meat-inspection regimen was slammed in the Maple Leaf inquiry, which said it was plagued by a shortage of inspectors, poor planning, mismanagement, and lack of training for supervisors. The Weatherill inquiry called on the CFIA to audit its new system; it is not clear if that audit is still under way.