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Union sounds alarm over food safety program

Food products are seen during a news conference in downtown Vancouver, B.C. Tuesday, April 22, 2014.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canada's food safety system is being pushed beyond its limits, warns the union representing federal food inspectors, which singles out Vancouver-area consumers as potentially the most at risk.

Some $35-million and 192 inspectors are on the food safety program's chopping block over the next two years, according to online documents posted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

The agency has also disbanded a team of inspectors dedicated to protecting consumers from food fraud throughout Metro Vancouver. The Consumer Protection Unit once boasted 11 inspectors, but that number dwindled to four due to attrition.

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B.C.'s Lower Mainland is now the only major metropolitan centre in the country without specialized surveillance, said the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

Having spoken to people within the CFIA and combed through the agency's internal documents, union officials say they've identified potential staffing and inspection weaknesses where health, financial and religious hazards could crop up.

"They're all overworked. There's not a manager in the agency right now who will tell you that they have enough resources to fully deliver what they're legally required to deliver," Bob Kingston, president of the agriculture union with PSAC, told reporters at a news conference on Tuesday.

"These legal requirements for the agency to still be looking at these products and to be actually worried about consumer protection have not gone away. The laws are still in place, the regulations are still in place. They've just stopped doing them."

Mr. Kingston said residents in the Vancouver region have become "guinea pigs" for the government as he laid out specific areas of concern the union spotted in the agency's 2014 internal work plan:

Compared with 2013, there will be 60 per cent fewer ground-meat inspections. The union says this means companies might be more apt to mix in other meats, like pork, or substitute other filler.

There will be no cooking-oil inspections. The union says oil can also be adulterated.

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The quantity of inspections for independent food retailers will be cut in half.

Routine menu checks, such as for product substitution and short measuring, won't occur.

Inspectors will no longer check that grocers are storing food at the safe temperature.

The federal health ministry referred questions to the CFIA, which responded to the union's claims with a broad e-mail.

"The statements by the union are false. There have been no cuts to food safety. Canada has one of the safest and healthiest food systems in the world," it said.

The agency acknowledged there have been recent changes to how it handles the Vancouver area.

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"In order to maximize food safety oversight, the CFIA recently implemented a realignment of staff," the statement said. "During this exercise, no jobs were cut and there has been no change in the number of inspectors on the ground in British Columbia." Two consumer protection inspectors remain stationed in each of Victoria and Kelowna.

The federal government's extract states an "additional" $390-million will be invested over five years to "strengthen Canada's food safety system." It says part of the money will fund more than "200 additional inspectors and other staff," along with establishing a national information system meant to help authorities quickly detect and respond to food safety risks. It will also pay for the continuation of a program combatting mad cow disease.

Mr. Kingston called the government's assertions over how it is distributing money a "smokescreen," alleging no new money is actually being put up.

Whether consumers could face real health risks will be tough to determine, he added, noting there is no federal tracking system for food-borne illnesses.

Food safety has had a high profile in Canada in the past few years. In 2008, a deadly listeriosis outbreak was linked to a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto. Another meat-processor was implicated in widespread illness in 2012, when the Alberta-based XL Foods Inc. conducted a massive beef recall due to cleanliness problems at its plant.

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