Plans to cut approximately 100 food inspector positions from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency over the next three years—a move projected to save the agency some $56 million—may not have as much impact on the nation’s food safety as has been claimed, according to one Canadian microbiologist and food safety expert.
“It’s really not as alarming as it sounds,” said Keith Warriner, PhD, an associate professor in the department of food science at the University of Guelph, Ontario. “They aren’t really cutbacks as much as a change in how CFIA is approaching how they ensure food safety.”
In the wake of the 2008 Maple Leaf Foods listeriosis outbreak that killed 23 people, reports indicated that CFIA needed more inspectors. “We got 70 more, and then lo and behold, we got the new budget a month or so ago, and it gets rid of 100,” Dr. Warriner said.
But it’s not as big an about-face as it seems, claimed Dr. Warriner, noting that CFIA has decided to focus on prevention in the field and on outbreak surveillance, rather than on placing more inspectors in plants. “They want to get away from looking over the industry’s shoulder to make sure that they have their labels right, and move to prevention and investigation.”
Currently, CFIA inspectors are assigned to different sections, such as meat, eggs, and bakery products. “They’ll be getting rid of those categories and instead assigning more flexible teams that are not just tied to one type of product,” Dr. Warriner said. Those teams will be at the front end, at the farm level—to monitor if anything dangerous is coming in—and at the outbreak response level. They’re taking people out of the middle bit and making a more flexible system.”
He predicted that many of the inspectors who lose their positions will get them back at the provincial level. “In fact, they’re asking to employ about 750 new system-wide inspectors over the next few years. That number may be an exaggeration, but I think there will be a large number of people assigned to these response team roles.”
But opponents of the plan have argued that inspection at the provincial level will not be as thorough as CFIA’s.
“This decision will make the inspector shortage worse, not better,” said Bob Kingston, national president of the Agriculture Union of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. “And because the government has failed to consult its own inspectors, they are cutting food safety blindly, with little understanding of the consequences.”