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A U.S. Department of Agriculture report identified “operation weaknesses” related to food safety and sanitation at CFIA-inspected plants.

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

The union representing workers at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is sounding the alarm on inspector staffing levels, saying ongoing budget cuts has led to less oversight over safety and sanitation in Canadian plants.

Following on the heels of a U.S. Department of Agriculture report, which identified "operation weaknesses" related to food safety and sanitation at CFIA-inspected plants, the agriculture union blamed understaffing by the agency. In an interview Tuesday, union president Bob Kingston said that the number of front-line food inspectors has dropped in recent years, with the agency's own reports forecasting another reduction of nearly 200 full-time jobs in the food-safety program in the next two years.

The CFIA disputed the claim, saying that the number of inspectors has varied over time based on risk, but has not decreased over all. The former government cut CFIA's budget by $56-million a year, according to the Treasury Board.

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The agency did not provide information on how many inspectors it currently employs, and the numbers it has made publicly available are unclear. The agency's report on plans and priorities each year details the number of staff in the overall food-safety program, and that figure has fluctuated over time. However, that number includes all staff in the program, and not just inspectors. The latest report – prepared under the previous government – forecasts a drop from 3,311 staff this year to 3,118 in 2017-18.

As part of their campaign platform, the Liberal government promised an additional $80-million over four years toward food-safety inspection.

"If there's not people in those facilities working with the plant operators to make sure the required standards are met, it doesn't happen," Mr. Kingston said. "You get what you measure, and if there's nobody actually there staying on top of things, human nature is human nature."

According to Mr. Kingston, several major plants in Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba are operating significantly below the CFIA's own requirements – between 12 and 57 per cent below the minimum. Mr. Kingston said that, in most cases, the inspectors taken out of plants are ones responsible for ensuring sanitation and animal-welfare standards are met. Some of these duties, Mr. Kingston said, include swabbing for bacteria, and monitoring condensation, air integrity and temperature.

The USDA report, submitted to the CFIA in January, identified issues at Canadian plants "related to government oversight, plant sanitation and microbiological testing" for listeria, salmonella and E. coli. In the report, auditors detailed open ceilings and the presence of rust. Of the nine Canadian plants inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, eight were cited for non-compliance with enforcement under the "inspection" category.

A similar USDA audit in 2012 raised several concerns, including sanitation and inspection activities.

But in a press conference Tuesday, the agency said that the issues identified in the audit simply reflect different approaches, and that the overall quality of inspection is equivalent to the United States.

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"In these audits, systems are deemed to be equivalent in terms of outcomes, but the way those outcomes are achieved can be different from country to country," said Barbara Jordan, CFIA's associate vice-president of policy and programs. "Equivalent does not mean same, it just means equivalent in terms of outcome."

Ms. Jordan said that issues highlighted in the USDA report have since been resolved, and said there is no risk of Canadian plants being delisted from exporting their products to the United States.

"Canadians can be assured that we have a strong and robust food-safety inspection system, based on internationally accepted best practices, supported by scientific evidence, follow surveillance programs, and a commitment to continuous improvement."

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