Canada: Food safety agency allowing producers to police themselves: ex-inspector

Last Updated: Wednesday, August 27, 2008 | 1:34 PM ET

CBC News


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Bob Kingston, a former inspector with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and now a union head, says food producers are increasingly taking on inspection duties. (CBC)

Federal inspectors are spending less time on the factory floor and relying more on food producers to monitor themselves, the head of the union for federal food safety inspectors said Wednesday.

Since March 31, food producers have been conducting their own tests for bacteria such as Listeria monocytogenes, and writing their own food safety reports, Bob Kingston, president of the Agriculture Union of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, told the CBC's Susan Bonner.

Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors have since had to deal with significantly more paperwork, which reduces their awareness of the everyday goings-on at meat-packing and processing facilities, said Kingston, formerly an inspector with the CFIA.

"The biggest concern from the [CFIA] inspection staff is simply the amount of time now they spend looking at reports and generating reports," said Kingston.

"And all of that means time off of the production floor."

Not enough attention was given to how the transition to the new procedures would affect the food inspection process, said Kingston.

"Basically there is a transition period where you know that things are going to be a little touch and go, and there probably should have been more resources put into the program, at least until there had been enough time to see how it worked."

A spokesman for the CFIA based in Ottawa wouldn't provide comment, but the agency has a news conference planned for later Wednesday.

Listeriosis a factor in at least 6 deaths

His comments come in the wake of a massive meat recall caused by a deadly outbreak of listeriosis.

As of Tuesday, there were 29 confirmed cases of listeriosis across Canada, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Of the 29, there are 15 confirmed deaths, mostly in Ontario but also one each in B.C., Saskatchewan and Quebec, the federal agency said. The listeria strain was determined to be the underlying or contributing factor in six of those 15 fatalities, while the deaths of the other nine patients, who had the bacterium in their system, are still under investigation to determine the exact cause, the agency said.

At the Maple Leaf Foods plant at the centre of the outbreak, the sole inspector overseeing the plant's health guidelines was left sifting through paperwork, said Kingston and the manager of the plant in an interview with the Globe and Mail on Tuesday.

Inspectors are now instructed more rigorously on how to spend their day, said Kingston.

"So it means they don't get to go to the place where they know there is the highest risk in plant, for instance, unless it happens to be on that schedule for the day," he said.

"It worries me that inspectors are reporting that they don't have the comfort level they once had."

Conservatives yet to reveal future food rules

A secret cabinet document leaked last month suggested the federal Conservatives want to hand over more inspection duties to industry as a part of future reforms.

The Tories, who haven't yet legislated any changes in food inspection policy, have not confirmed what their plans for reform would be.

They also haven't indicated that any changes have been made, besides hiring 200 new federal inspectors since their government took power in January 2006.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters Tuesday the food rules were in need of a "reform and revamp" after "some years of neglect."

Critics have increasingly voiced their concerns federal Conservatives' plans for food inspection reform.

Ontario Health Minister David Caplan said Tuesday he is concerned by the Tories' plan to shift more responsibility for food inspection to producers.

Last week, Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion and Liberal agriculture critic Wayne Easter criticized the Tories for the possible changes, with Easter accusing the Tories of downloading responsibility for food inspection onto industry as a "cost-saving measure."



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