Cutting corners on meat inspection

Reductions to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency raise questions about the safety of the country's food supply

Paula Simons, Canwest News Service


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Published: Monday, July 21, 2008

How safe is the meat we buy and eat? In this post-BSE era, when we have to contend with tainted spinach and lethal tomatoes from south of the border and poisoned pet food from China, consumer concern about the safety and quality of the food we buy for our families, and our family pets, has never been more acute.

At the same time, the need to maintain public confidence in the safety of our food supply, both within and outside of Canada, has never been greater. At a time of rising protectionist sentiment in the United States, it's absolutely essential that we safeguard the integrity and reputation of our food inspection system -- that we allow no loss of faith or face.

That's what makes the details of a leaked federal budget proposal to cut costs at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency so shocking. The suggested "reallocations" would save the CFIA about $75 million over three years.

The cuts were all approved by the federal Treasury Board this past November, but deferred because of what the government called "significant communications risk" -- that's code for public backlash. The details of the proposal became public only this past weekend, after confidential documents were leaked to Canwest News in Ottawa.

Among the key changes proposed:

- A $25-million cut to the avian influenza preparedness program.

- A plan to stop paying beef farmers a cash incentive to turn in their cattle for BSE testing, which would save another $25 million over three years.

- Proposals to allow feed mill operators, meat producers and those who make meat products to do their own safety inspections, which would "reduce the need for ongoing CFIA inspection" and leave the CFIA with an "oversight" role auditing industry practices.

The money saved, says the CFIA, would then be spent in other areas. The end result, it insists, will be a safer system overall.

But have we really learned nothing from the BSE debacle? It was our past failure to regulate the production of safe animal feed that caused mad cow disease to spread through the Canadian herd in the first place. And it was our utter failure to set up a competent surveillance system for BSE that allowed us to be caught flat-footed when infected animals started to pop up. At a time when we're still struggling to restore the international reputation of Canadian beef, why on earth would we want to put the food inspection system at risk?

Canadian consumers not only need safe, reliable food -- they need to feel their food is safe and reliable.

Shifting food inspection budgets, eliminating federal incentives for BSE testing and shifting the responsibility to inspect our meat and our animal feed onto industry may or may not make our food more dangerous.

But I guarantee this: Whether such changes compromise our food chain or not, they will most certainly fuel public fears that our food will be less safe than before. The last thing farmers and food processors need now is fresh, widespread public distrust about their products.

And given how much of our meat we export, the last thing we need is to give the world the impression we're cutting corners when it comes to food and feed inspection.

The CFIA argues that industry is in the best position to police itself, that it should take on this responsibility because it has a vested interest in ensuring the safety of its product. If a company messes up, in other words, consumers will stop buying its products.

Of course, in a perfect world, corporations would always act for the greater public good and not put short-term profits ahead of long-term corporate reputation.

In this imperfect world, that doesn't always happen. All it would take is for one or two irresponsible or negligent producers to spoil Canada's reputation -- and put the health and the lives of Canadians at risk.

It's not enough to rely on the marketplace to punish producers after the fact. We have to be sure our meat is safe, before someone gets sick.

Almost as disturbing as the content of this leaked confidential document, is the secrecy that surrounds this major shift in the government's food safety policy. It doesn't appear that the MLAs of the Alberta caucus were notified of these policy changes -- even though Alberta is the country's leading beef producer and packer, the province most affected by these proposals.

Nor, it seems, was the Alberta government consulted about plans to end the federal cash incentives to farmers to bring in cows for BSE testing. On Monday, the province reconfirmed its commitment to continue its own program to pay farmers to bring in cattle for BSE examination.

The province says the program is still necessary. So why does Alberta's policy stand in direct contradiction to Ottawa's?

Protecting the quality of our food is a basic matter of public safety -- and of sound trade policy. Before Ottawa puts these proposals into effect, it had better be ready to demonstrate that it is putting neither our physical nor our economic health at risk.


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