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Canada Food Safety Inspectors Fall Victim To Austerity

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This article is part of a Huffington Post series on the global impact of austerity -- "A Thousand Cuts" -- from affordable housing funds lost in San Francisco to increasing class sizes in New York, food inspector cuts in Canada, disability benefits taken away in the United Kingdom, decimation of France's solar industry, and more. Click here for information on how you can help people affected by these measures.

TORONTO -- Frances Clark’s last moments were not peaceful. Flu-like symptoms and seizures wracked her body. Her breathing deteriorated. At the end, she was “gasping, like a fish out of water,” her daughter recalled later in court documents.

The 89-year-old woman died on Aug. 25, 2008, the first victim of a listeriosis outbreak that killed 23 people, sickened thousands more and triggered the biggest food recall in Canadian history.

A government investigation determined the cause of the outbreak: tainted meat from processing giant Maple Leaf Foods. The company apologized to the victims and settled a number of lawsuits, including one brought by Clark's family, for CAD$27 million.

Following the scandal, the federal government introduced significant changes to its meat inspection program, including nearly doubling the number of inspectors from 225 to 400.

Now, however, the government has slashed the budget for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), the federal department responsible for food safety, by $56 million over the next three years. Hundreds of inspectors and other agency employees are scheduled to be laid off, although meat inspectors won’t be cut, Ottawa has vowed.

Karen Clark, Frances' daughter, said she was “dumbfounded.”

“I know times are tough and there are cutbacks in a lot of places, but I don’t think your food source is one of them to be chancy with,” she told The Huffington Post. “They’re just looking for another disaster.”

The full impact of the austerity budget that Parliament approved this spring won’t be felt for many years. But CFIA insiders and front-line food inspectors fear that the system, already stretched thin, will snap, threatening the safety of Canada's food and public health.

Compared to many other developed countries, Canada has emerged from the recession relatively unscathed. But after several years of stimulus spending, the Conservative government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper has committed to paying down the deficit -- an effort that critics say will necessarily involve chipping away at many public programs and services Canadians have come to take for granted.

Ottawa insists that most of the cuts to the food inspection agency will be related to administrative functions. “The government is not making any changes that would reduce the safety of Canadian food,” Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz told HuffPost.

“No food safety-related inspectors will be declared surplus and we have not, and will not, reduce staff or cut programs that would in any way place the health and safety of Canadians at risk,” the CFIA said in a statement.

Interviews with current and former CFIA workers and the union officials who represent them tell a different story.

“If they go ahead with their plans, I have concerns,” said Bob Kingston, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada’s Agriculture Union, which represents the agency’s front-line inspectors. “When people are run off their feet ... they have to take shortcuts or the work simply can’t get done. And that’s the situation they’re going to be in.”

Under Canada’s Constitution, the federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments share responsibility for food safety. The CFIA, which currently employs about 3,500 front-line inspectors and inspection managers across the country, enforces all federal laws, ensures industry compliance, initiates food recalls and investigates foodborne illness outbreaks with other levels of government. There are an estimated 6.8 million cases of foodborne illness in Canada each year, though most are mild and usually result from mishandling or cross-contamination just before the food is served.

But as the 2008 listeria outbreak showed, food inspection is still a vital line of defense.

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HuffPost readers: Have you or your family been hurt by a breakdown in food safety inspection? Tell us what happened by emailing offthebus@huffingtonpost.com, and include a phone number if you're willing to be interviewed.

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Yet over the next three years, 100 inspectors will lose their jobs, and 349 other CFIA employees -- including nearly half of the agency’s veterinarians -- have been told they will be somehow “affected,” according to the unions that represent these workers. (The agency declined interview requests from HuffPost and would not provide specifics about the anticipated job losses.)

The agency will also stop checking the accuracy of nutrition labels, according to the budget released in March.

While the government has promised to keep meat inspectors off the chopping block, other front-line inspectors -- including those who deal directly with food safety -- have already been given pink slips.

Sam Barlin, the only inspector in Manitoba responsible for inspecting honey and processed fruits and vegetables, will lose his job as part of the cuts.

While these foods are inherently less risky than, say, raw spinach or deli meat, Barlin said his inspections over the years have turned up everything from contaminated honey to allergens that were missing from product labels.

“If a commodity is considered low risk, is it a hazard?” said Barlin. “There is definitely a food safety element to all of the inspections that I do.”

“I have no backup,” the 26-year CFIA veteran and regional union representative added. "If I’m sick or if I’m gone, right now there’s nobody that’s trained to cover my work."

In addition to their primary tasks, inspectors can report any other problems they stumble upon during their normal inspections. But a CFIA inspector who spoke on condition of anonymity -- staffers told HuffPost that they have been warned not to talk to the media — said resourcing is so stretched that inspectors checking for one type of compliance issue ignore other problems they see.

“We’ve learned not to look, because all it does is create more work for ourselves, and we don’t get backup from our supervisors, from our managers,” the inspector said.

Kingston, the Agriculture Union president, and others warn that the pending cuts will diminish oversight in programs such as import inspection at the Canada-U.S. border, where some say standards have already deteriorated significantly.

“In the early days, we all had the culture of really protecting the public, and it seemed to gradually go toward facilitating the quick movement of goods through the border," said Paul Caron, a former CFIA inspector who spent the bulk of his 35-year career inspecting imports at the Detroit-Windsor border before retiring in 2005. In the mid-1990s, he said, the agency moved from inspecting every load coming into Canada at the border to randomly selecting some loads to report to inspection facilities and allowing others to carry on unchecked.

When it comes to meat, for example, Caron said that about one in 10 lots -- there can be several lots in a single shipment, separated by grade and cut -- are sent for inspection.

In 2010, the agency stopped giving importers advance notice of inspections, a move Caron called long overdue. But he said the kind of problems he would uncover -- everything from rats to feces -- raise serious questions about what isn’t being caught.

“I’ve seen the way commodity products have come through the border, and that’s when we had some oversight, and that’s the thing that really concerns me,” he said.

The CFIA did not respond to questions about the number of imports flagged for inspection each year, but said its “risk-based import inspection programs are based on internationally recognized standards and principles.”

Importers who fail to report for inspection are supposed to face prosecution and fines, but in the last decade, the agency confirmed, there has been only one instance in which a company that failed to deliver product for inspection was prosecuted.

“This does not mean that importers are not being held up to the federal acts and regulations,” the CFIA wrote in an email. “Most enforcement actions are resolved with the cooperation of importers and so no severe enforcement actions are required.”

Kingston said the risks posed by budget cuts at the food inspection agency will be amplified by other cost-saving measures, most significantly the plan to shift the responsibility for some meat inspection from the federal government to some provinces.

The British Columbia Ministry of Health told HuffPost that it will design a meat inspection system that “supports producers and processors, while keeping the safety of B.C. meat products paramount.”

Some doubt that the provinces can deliver a comparable level of safety, however.

Former CFIA meat inspector Bob Jackson, who now holds a full-time position with the union, said that British Columbia doesn’t have the infrastructure or the means to do appropriate inspections. He predicted that few, if any, of the 35 federal inspectors currently assigned to provincially regulated meat processing plants will be hired by the province under the new arrangement.

Kingston fears some of that inspection work may be replaced by a proposed video surveillance system, although the province insists that any cameras would be used as an additional safeguard against abuse, “not as a substitute for inspection of livestock and carcasses.”

Not everyone agrees that more inspectors mean an inherently better system. University of Manitoba professor Rick Holley, one of Canada’s foremost experts in food safety, said that while inspection and end-product testing are important, neither can guarantee the safety of food.

“Safety has to be built into food,” he said. “So if we’re talking about changes in the number of inspectors, I would like to change that conversation to what it is the inspection staff does.”

For example, rather than testing a bushel of celery for listeria, Holley said inspectors should be "taking a look at the process that’s used for bringing that celery from the field into the store to make sure that there’s no opportunity for the listeria to grow on that product.”

When it comes to inspection, it’s quality, not quantity, that counts, said Holley. If cuts to the number of inspectors result in a more effective use of that resource, “I’m all for it,” he said.

But that’s little comfort to Karen Clark, who now checks the Internet for food recalls almost daily and has sworn off processed meat.

“We trust our food source,” she said. “The only way we can have that trust and assurance is knowing that the inspectors are out there doing what they do.”

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