Changes to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency will not harm the health and safety of Canadians in any way, says Canada's agriculture minister, despite warnings this week from the union representing food inspectors that budget cuts will see up to 100 food safety inspectors lose their jobs.
In an interview airing on The House Saturday, Gerry Ritz tells host Evan Solomon there is "no way" the federal government would ever compromise food safety.
"We have continued to add inspectors to the front line for anything that has the potential to be problematic, we continue to add dollars to the CFIA and public health, both at the provincial and federal levels, to make sure the food we serve to Canadians is safe," the minister said.
However, the president of the union representing food safety inspectors disagrees.
According to Bob Kingston, the Public Service Alliance of Canada Agriculture Union president, these cuts are going to put Canadians "at more risk."
Kingston says cuts to the CFIA will result in up to 100 food safety inspectors losing their jobs, effectively reversing the action the federal government took when it hired 70 food inspectors after 23 Canadians died and dozens others got sick from a listeriosis outbreak in 2008.
On Wednesday, NDP MP agriculture critic Malcolm Allen also criticized the government over the cuts.
"Now we're back to square one," Allen said. "It's not a good day for consumers."
But Ritz points out that the CFIA will see its funding increased by $51 million over two years, adding that since 2006 the federal government has provided "the investments" for the CFIA to hire "733 net new inspection staff."
But Kingston told the CBC's Solomon he doesn't know where that investment went.
"It's great that they made the investment to produce all these workers but I'm not sure where they ended up," said Kingston.
"It sure wasn't on the front lines."
Kingston also told Solomon that 40 meat inspectors received surplus notices this week and that will "absolutely" affect the health and safety of Canadians.
Last summer, the federal government announced it would hand over the inspection of provincial meat-packing plants to the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan starting in January 2014.
Kingston says that from what the union has seen, the provinces "have no intention of delivering the service at the same level the CFIA did."
Kingston pointed to a report published by B.C.'s ministry of health in December that suggested inspection could be conducted remotely through the use of video cameras.
Ritz said he's comfortable with the proposal "depending on what part of the line" B.C. puts the cameras on.
"At the end of the day those provincial sites will be inspected at the same level they were before by someone wearing a provincial badge, not a federal one," the minister said.
"The standards are the same. The product coming out of them is still exceptionally safe."
Kingston called the B.C. proposal "a no-inspection option."
When Solomon asked Ritz about the cost of handing over meat inspection to those three provinces, the minister acknowledged the provinces will have "to cover off what the feds were doing or federal taxpayers were paying for."
"At the end the consumer always pays, the price gets added on down the line," said Ritz.
The federal budget will see the Agriculture portfolio cut by 10 per cent, with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency being asked to cut $56.1 million over three years.