Cuts to federal meat inspection that will take place as early as April demonstrate how reductions in public services widely anticipated in the coming federal budget could affect ordinary Canadians.
The union that represents federal meat inspectors held a news conference on Monday to highlight plans by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to eliminate 234 jobs in the next fiscal year – mostly food safety personnel who were hired after a listeriosis outbreak in 2008 killed 23 people.
Treasury Board President Tony Clement has said all departments must find ways to cut between five and 10 per cent of their spending as the government grapples with a deficit of $31-billion.
But Bob Kingston, the president of the Agriculture Union, said the elimination of meat inspection jobs outlined in CFIA's 2011-12 Estimates Report on Plans and Priorities is in addition to whatever cuts the agency will have to make to meet the demands of the coming budget.
The report forecasts a reduction of $21.5-million from a current annual program cost of $744-million and says "resources will sunset for listeriosis and for increased frequency of food inspection in meat processing establishments" at the end of the current fiscal year.
Mr. Kingston said that will mean the loss of the 170 extra inspectors who were hired after an investigation blamed a lack attention to food safety in both the public and private sectors for the deadly outbreak listeriosis at a Maple Leaf processing plant in Toronto.
Meanwhile, other federal departments are also trimming costs as part of an earlier program review in addition to the heavy chopping that that will be forced upon them when Finance Minister Jim Flaherty releases his as-yet-unscheduled budget in February or March.
Environment Canada announced last week that 60 of its employees – engineers, compliance officers, biologists, climatologists and others – had been told their services would no longer be needed.
And Service Canada only recently agreed to hire additional staff on a temporary basis after reductions in the number of employees who process employment insurance claims created backlogs and delays that had become unmanageable.
Larry Rousseau, a vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, which includes the Agriculture Union, said the government reduced its revenue flow by cutting the corporate tax rates and that means there is less money for public services.
At the same time, it has been expanding the public service. Since taking office in 2006, the federal bureaucracy had grown by some 33,000 jobs and federal spending has increased by $75-billion or 43 per cent. Now the government has determined it is time to cut back.
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, who is responsible for the CFIA, said in an e-mail on Monday that "Canadian families can be assured that the safety of our food supply will not be affected as federal departments and agencies look for ways to be more efficient and more financially prudent with taxpayer's dollars."
But neither Mr. Ritz nor his department could explain how food safety would remain unscathed by the loss of inspectors in meat processing plants.
Malcolm Allen, the agriculture critic for the opposition New Democrats, said food safety should be spared when the government makes its cuts. "This is really irresponsible on the government's part to really take a machete when they need to take a scalpel," he said. "This is one group that in my view should have been left alone."