The union representing federal food inspectors says it's hearing two very different explanations of what the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is cutting: one version from the minister and a very different version from senior CFIA managers.
Among the issues affecting food safety is the continuing lack of clarity over federal government plans to change the monitoring of food labels. A line in the March 29 budget said the Canadian Food Inspection Agency would be launching a "web-based label verification tool that encourages consumers to bring validated concerns directly to companies and associations for resolutions."
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, who is responsible for CFIA, has said inspectors would continue to do spot checks on store shelves. But Bob Kingston, the president of the Agriculture Union, says senior CFIA officials recently told staff the labelling program is now under a "full scale review" and the final outcome is not clear.
Mr. Kingston said the risk is that Canadians will no longer be able to trust the labels they read on store shelves.
"Diabetics make choices about these things every day, which their lives depend on," Mr. Kingston said at a news conference on Parliament Hill. "So do people with serious allergies. There's a variety of diseases. If you've got Celiac disease, obviously you need to know what's in a product. A lot of products that are on the shelves have contents in them that you'd never expect, but if you've got one of these problems, they could literally kill you. So to say that's not health and safety related I think is somebody's pipe dream."
A spokesperson for CFIA accused Mr. Kingston of "misrepresenting" the facts around labelling.
"There are no planned reductions in labelling inspection activities," said a statement from CFIA's media relations office. "The CFIA will continue to enforce food safety and consumer protection labelling requirements including those related to ingredients and allergens, nutrition, compositional standards and mandatory labelling."
Mr. Kingston said briefings from senior CFIA staff have also contradicted the minister's claims that there will be no changes in frontline inspectors.
The union says CFIC vice-president Stephen Baker told staff last week during town hall meetings that the agency is moving toward a new inspection model that "will radically alter" its current way of conducting inspections. Mr. Baker allegedly told staff the new model would see the CFIA move away from having inspectors specialize in specific commodities, such as fish or meat and that industry would not on a larger role in enforcing safety rules.
Mr. Ritz has kept a low profile in the weeks since the budget. He has rejected the union's previous claims about food safety being put at risk as a result of budget cuts.
"I absolutely disagree that our food is not safe," Mr. Ritz told CBC's The House in an interview that aired on April 14. "In no way would we ever compromise food safety."
Meaghan Murdoch, a spokesperson for Mr. Ritz, repeated Tuesday that the safety of food "is in no way reduced" by the measures announced in the budget.
"While the union's priority is to save union jobs, our government's priority continues to be the safety of Canadian food," she said in an e-mail. "Our changes will allow the CFIA to focus on the verification and inspection activities that keep the Canadian food supply one of the safest in the world while helping industry get products to market at the speed of commerce."