Veterinarians and other inspectors responsible for food recalls and ensuring the safety of Canadian meat are among the hundreds of federal public servants who will be told this week their jobs are at risk.
The Globe and Mail has learned that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Agriculture Canada will be among the hardest-hit departments as Ottawa rolls out where it will cut 19,200 jobs across the country.
Union leaders say the sheer volume of affected staff working in food safety directly contradicts the Conservative government's claims that budget cuts will largely be limited to "back office" efficiencies.
According to the CFIA's own website, its team of veterinarians form "the first line of defence against the spread of many diseases among animals, and between animals and humans." The agency says its work includes inspecting and certifying animals and meat products for domestic and international markets, as well as food recalls and emergency response.
Food safety is a sensitive issue for the Conservative government. The biggest food recall in Canadian history took place under its watch in 2008. An independent review of the listeriosis outbreak found 22 deaths and 35 serious illnesses were connected to contaminated Maple Leaf Foods deli meats.
The Conservative government promised to increase the number of food inspectors in the aftermath of the outbreak.
"No cost-saving measures will affect food safety," insists CFIA spokesman Tim O'Connor, who said he could not confirm details of any cuts until staff are informed.
According to the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) union, which largely represents white-collar government workers, at least 344 of its members at CFIA will be receiving notices this week that their positions are "affected" by job cuts. The union says the list of employees includes CFIA veterinarians.
However, only a fraction of public servants who receive "affected" letters ultimately lose their jobs under the federal labour process.
Gary Corbett, the president of PIPSC, said he was "very shocked" to see the extent of staffing cuts at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and said he's working with his members to fully understand what impact this will have on Canadians.
Several departments are also expected to deliver notices to members of other unions, including the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), which is the largest federal union. That would mean a much larger number of federal public servants will be receiving notices.
Bob Kingston, the president of PSAC's Agriculture Union, confirmed his members at CFIA – including food inspectors – will be affected but was still going through the details late Tuesday.
"It's impossible to cut that many people and not affect food safety," he said.
The Conservative government's March 29 budget announced a plan to cut $5.2-billion in annual operating spending as part of an overall effort to eliminate the deficit. The budget said this would lead to the elimination of 19,200 positions, although attrition was expected to account for about 7,200 of those.
The budget provided few details as to what exactly was being cut. It claimed that "almost 70 per cent of the total ongoing savings are due to operating efficiencies." Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has also described the cuts as affecting "back office stuff."
John Gordon, the national president of PSAC, said cutting staff in back offices will ultimately affect services to Canadians.
"It's not just job losses, it's services," he said, using the example of passport processing as a service that involves lots of back-office staff.
"If you take them out of the equation, who's going to get that passport to you?" he asked. "They use that 'back office' slogan and they think people are stupid."