Despite a recent announcement from the federal government that it’s shoring up the country’s food-inspection system, not everyone has confidence in the safety of what Canadians are putting on their plates.
On June 17, the Harper government declared that it had installed “inspection verification teams” within the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to target food establishments such as slaughterhouses and other meat-production facilities.
However, Bob Jackson, executive vice-president (B.C.) of the Public Service Alliance of Canada and a former meat inspector, says that the dissolution of the CFIA’s Metro Vancouver Consumer Protection Inspectorate earlier this year and ongoing budget cuts to the federal agency are leaving people at risk of eating unsafe food.
“Food inspectors that were dedicated to consumer protection and doing a lot of retail inspections in Metro Vancouver, looking at things such as fraud and unsafe food displays, that unit has been disbanded,” Jackson said in a phone interview. “So inspectors are there but they’re not doing that dedicated work any longer; they’re being absorbed into the [Canadian Food Inspection] agency. The Canadian people have come to rely on government to be doing that work on their behalf, and we’re seeing further and further erosions to this and other programs that the food agency has been delivering.
“A lot of this is being turned over to the industry—and, unfortunately, we’ve seen the results of that,” he added, noting the 2008 Maple Leaf Foods listeriosis outbreak when 22 people died after eating deli meats. “It’s downright dangerous when people are policing themselves.”
According to the CFIA’s “2014-15 Report on Plans and Priorities”, planned spending on the food-safety program is to drop by about $35 million, from $321 million in 2014-15 to $286 million in 2016-17. For that same program, the number of full-time employees is to be reduced by 192, from 2,940 to 2,748 in the same time period.
Further reductions are planned for the meat and poultry safety “sub-program”. Planned spending is to be lowered by almost $24 million, from $169 million in 2014-15 to $145.1 million in 2016-17. The number of full-time employees will drop by 152, from 1,599 to 1,447.
The Metro Vancouver Consumer Protection Inspectorate was disbanded at the end of January, according to Jackson, with its former inspectors sent elsewhere in the CFIA. “All we’ve seen is further erosion of frontline inspections and further implementation of programs designed to let industry police itself,” Jackson said. “When a program is cut or dismantled or altered, there’s little or any consultation with people doing the work.”
The CFIA has been “retreating” from its consumer-protection mandate, PSAC says, even though the agency claims that there has been no decrease in the number of inspectors in the province. The union claimed in an April news release this year that the CFIA ordered its inspectors to stop verifying product temperatures in retail food displays. This is a safety concern because temperatures that are not low enough can foster the growth of pathogens that create food-borne illnesses.
Meanwhile, research out of UBC has determined that certain strains of the Listeria monocytogenes bacterium are able to adapt to cold and grow, possibly going on to make people sick.
“Listeria monocytogenes is an environmentally ubiquitous organism that frequently contaminates food-processing environments,” the authors (who included UBC grad student Jovana Kovacevic and Kevin Allen, UBC assistant professor of food microbiology) wrote in a 2013 study published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology. The organisms studied “may have increased ability to grow to unacceptable and potentially dangerous levels during cold storage.…These isolates are of significant concern to food processors and public health officials.”
Listeriosis can cause gastroenteritis or mild flulike symptoms in healthy people. In those with compromised immune systems, infections can become “invasive” and lead to encephalitis, meningitis, septicemia, or spontaneous abortions during the last trimester of pregnancy. Mortality rates range from 20 percent to 40 percent, according to the study.
For Erica Frank, a professor in UBC’s school of population and public health, the lack of monitoring for radiation in B.C. fish following the Fukushima nuclear-reactor disaster is also a concern. Although Frank, a former U.S. president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, said the risk from consuming local fish is low, she doesn’t understand why the CFIA isn’t rigorously monitoring the situation on a regular basis, calling it a “policy problem”.
“People are anxious about this,” Frank said in a phone interview. “I don’t think they need to be, but what they do need to be anxious about is the fact that in North America we have an awful lot of nuclear power plants of our own, and this is something that has to change. We need to think about this. My specialty is preventive medicine, and this is about as fundamentally preventive as you can get.”
According to a February 2014 web release, the CFIA tested more than 200 food samples following Fukushima, including imported food products from Japan, milk from B.C., and domestic and migratory fish from off the B.C. coast. The agency posted that “all were found to be below Health Canada’s actionable levels for radioactivity. As such, enhanced import controls have been lifted and no additional testing is planned.”
The effects of Fukushima are not over, however, according to Frank. “Those radioisotopes have 30-year half-lives, and I’m not at all confident that their [the Japanese government’s] containment efforts are going to hold out that long,” she said.
The issue of food safety has caught the attention of opposition politicians. According to federal Liberal agriculture critic Mark Eyking, this could become a significant issue in next year’s federal election.
“The food industry is a very competitive industry, and when people get cutting corners, it’s important that inspectors are there,” Eyking said on the line from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. “If anything, we should be increasing our resources, not decreasing them.”
Meanwhile, federal NDP agriculture critic Malcolm Allen said cutbacks to the CFIA and the increase in industry self-regulation combine to threaten the safety of our food.
“One of the concerns is with the amount of food that comes into the country and the lack of inspection that actually happens,” Allen said by phone. “With such quantities of product being imported, we’re not really, I don’t believe, doing the work at the border because inspectors are understaffed.
“It used to be that CFIA did a lot of retail-level inspections,” he noted. “Those inspections are few and far between in metropolitan areas and even less so when it comes to smaller communities.”