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Canada Inspectors believe understaffing poses risk to food safety: union survey

Survey found that 55 per cent of food safety workers feel that current staffing levels are inadequate, and almost 70 per cent believe a major food-borne illness outbreak is likely in the near future.

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

The majority of food safety workers at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency believe there aren't enough inspectors at production plants to ensure that safety requirements are being met, according to a new survey.

Amid growing concerns from the union representing federal food inspectors, the group commissioned a survey on staffing levels that is set to be released Wednesday. That survey found that over half of the respondents – 55 per cent – feel that current staffing levels at their workplaces are inadequate, and almost 70 per cent believe a major food-borne illness outbreak is likely in the near future.

"The CFIA just does not have the front-line resources needed right now," said union president Bob Kingston. When asked whether Canadians should feel confident in the safety of their food products, he responded by saying: "Who knows?"

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A statement from the CFIA in response to the survey called Canada's food safety system "one of the best" in the world.

"While no food system can guarantee zero risk, the CFIA's comprehensive approach to inspection ensures that its resources are focused where the risk is highest and verifies the industry is producing safe food for consumers," the statement said.

The agency did not provide a number of how many inspectors are currently employed. "Inspectors play an important role, but a count of inspectors alone is not an accurate measure of the CFIA's investment in food safety."

The CFIA makes public in its report on plans and priorities each year the total number of staff in its food safety program, although that figure includes all employees and not just inspectors.

That figure has fluctuated over the past number of years, with the latest forecast predicting a drop from 3,311 to 3,118 by 2018.

A total of 580 of the Agriculture Union's over 3,700 members responded to the survey conducted by Abacus Data – about 80 per cent of the respondents are front-line inspectors.

Staff at meat plants expressed the greatest level of concern, with 71 per cent of inspectors at processing plants and 60 per cent in slaughter facilities saying they feel understaffed.

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For months, the union has sounded the alarm on staffing levels, saying ongoing budget cuts have led to less oversight over the safety of food in this country.

According to the Treasury Board, the former government cut the agency's budget by $56-million a year.

At the same time, the agency has been undergoing a process of "inspection modernization" to develop new processes for food inspection.

The union's survey, Mr. Kingston said, "is a red flag that the new government needs to implement its election promise of new investments to shore up front-line food inspection." As part of their campaign platform, the Liberal government promised an additional $80-million over four years toward food safety inspection.

Earlier this month, the CFIA was the subject of criticism after an audit by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found "operation weaknesses related to government oversight, plant sanitation and microbiological testing" at Canadian plants.

The agency later responded by saying that all the issues highlighted in the USDA report have been resolved, and that the overall quality of inspection in Canada is equivalent to the United States.

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The survey was conducted in mid-February. The margin of error is 4.15 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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