The union that represents federal meat inspectors says Ottawa is putting Canadian lives at risk by pulling its inspectors from a number of meat plants in British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has warned that, as of January 2014, it will no longer do the job of ensuring the safety of meat packed in provincially registered plants in those provinces.
The agency points out that, in all other parts of the country, these inspection services are delivered by provincial and territorial inspectors.
"Food safety is CFIA's top priority and the inspection regime in federally registered plants will not change," Gerry Ritz, the federal Agriculture Minister, said in an e-mail. "We are working with these provinces to ensure a smooth transition of inspection services over the next three years while maintaining the highest food safety standards."
But Bob Kingston, the national president of the Agriculture Union, said in a letter to Mr. Ritz on Wednesday that the move means meat from provincially registered facilities in British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan will likely fall below acceptable standards.
It "will certainly be beneath the standards and meat inspection practices enjoyed by Canadians living elsewhere," wrote Mr. Kingston. "For example, the provincial meat inspection systems in Alberta and Ontario are well established and well supported, so meat inspection conducted in these provinces will be superior."
It takes a long time to hire new inspectors and provide the necessary training and the deadline of 2014 that has been imposed by the CFIA is "unrealistic," he said in the letter.
"With less than half of the required budget, these provinces will be faced with inspecting all provincially registered meat production facilities with an inexperienced staff that is not big enough to cover the territory and which lacks the necessary supportive infrastructure," wrote Mr. Kingston.
In addition, he wrote, the provincial meat inspection standards are often much less stringent than those that are in place for federally registered facilities. It is a fact that he said was demonstrated recently at a plant in British Columbia which opted out of the federal regime and then registered as a provincial facility after a federal meat inspector found an dangerous E.Coli contamination.
"The bottom line is that by walking away from this responsibility, the federal government is needlessly exposing consumers in B.C., Saskatchewan and Manitoba to elevated risks from eating meat produced in provincial registered establishments," wrote Mr. Kingston.
The CFIA has come under fire for a number of years for understaffing meat inspection. A report into a deadly outbreak of listeriosis in 2008 found that the agency did not know how many inspectors were in its employ.
Even though federal meat inspection resources have been stretched, the agency, like all other federal departments, must suggest ways to trim five per cent or 10 per cent from its budget as part the Conservative government's plan to find $4 billion in ongoing savings across the board.
Cathy Airth, the associate vice president of the operations branch with the CFIA, said the decision was made because the agency wanted to focus on its core mandate which is federally regulated facilities.
"But it would be fair to say that, because this was done under contract and there was a cost recovery angle, that we were not actually being paid the costs that it cost the agency," said Ms. Airth, "We were being paid somewhat less."
The provinces were told about the change in June of this year and that the agency would work with them to ensure a smooth transition, she said.
"We are very interested in making sure that there are no issues related to food safety," said Ms. Airth.