As investigators probe an unusual number of listeriosis cases in Ontario this year alongside a new tainted-meat recall, food inspectors have raised fresh questions about gaps between Canadian and U.S. food safety regimes.
Plants that package meat for Canada's domestic market are inspected just once a week, while those that ship to the U.S. must be checked daily. The union that represents inspectors now says that in recent months, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has resorted to paying for more overtime inspections after American officials said scrutiny on this side of the border fell short of U.S. standards.
The revelation about the gap between U.S. and Canadian meat inspection comes as the CFIA tries to contain a new listeriosis contamination discovered last week in two types of meat packaged under the Siena brand that were distributed in Alberta and Ontario.
There have been an unusually high number of listeriosis cases in Ontario this year, with 14 so far versus an annual total of about 40.
An outbreak of the same bacteria at a Toronto meat packing plant in 2008 killed 22 people. A report into that tragedy released last July found that a shortage of CFIA inspection staff created a lack of oversight that allowed the bacteria to go undetected.
That report recommended an audit be conducted to determine the demand on CFIA's inspection resources and the number of inspectors – a number the agency was unable to provide. CFIA says that study has yet to be completed.
The United States insists that inspectors maintain a daily presence in the plants if the meat is destined for American markets.
The CFIA had interpreted that to mean inspectors must be in the plants at least once every 16 hours. That wasn't enough for U.S. officials. So in November, the Canadian agency told its inspectors they would have to work overtime to meet the U.S. requirements.
When it comes to plants supplying Canadian consumers, the requirements are considerably looser. The head of the inspectors' union says inspections of domestic plants are conducted just once a week.
Canadian guidelines say that the plants must be "under inspection," said Bob Kingston, the national president of the Agriculture Union.
"There's a lot of latitude as to how you are going to interpret that," said Mr. Kingston. "So CFIA interpreted that to say if you get there once a week, we consider that to be under inspection."
The CFIA stated that "although there are some differences in the inspection procedures and requirements of each country, the meat inspection systems are equally effective in producing safe food."
Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz responded to the listeriosis crisis by announcing last September that $75-million would be spent to enhance food safety, in part by hiring additional inspectors.
There is an additional $13-million allotted in CFIA's budget to hire new inspectors, an agency spokesman said in an e-mail.
The agency plans to hire about 100 new inspectors for meat and poultry facilities in 2010, the spokesman said, in addition to 70 meat inspectors hired over two years that were announced in September.
"This will normalize the work hours of current inspectors," the spokesman added.
But the $13-million is not spelled out in the federal budget released earlier this month, and the overall budget for the agency's 2010-2011 year, tabled in Parliament on March 3, was only $1-million higher than that tabled the year before.
The union says the size of the inspection force has not increased since the listerosis outbreak and it can see no evidence of the additional money announced by the minister.