OTTAWA - A beef recall billed as one of the largest in Canadian history has sparked a heated war of words — and numbers — in the House of Commons.
Since a shipment of E. coli-contaminated Canadian beef from Alberta-based XL Foods Inc. was stopped at the American border on Sept. 4, the Conservative government has stoutly maintained the domestic food inspection system is working as it should.
The government, up to and including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has repeatedly claimed it has hired hundreds of additional inspectors since coming to power. It also points to Budget 2012's injection of $51.2 million over the next two years "to strengthen Canada's food safety system."
Opposition critics note the same 2012 budget cut the overall stipend to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency by $2.1 million this fiscal year, $10 million next year and an ongoing $56.1 million by 2014-15.
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz attempted to clear the air Wednesday at a news conference in Calgary.
"Since 2006, our government has provided significant funding to improve our food safety system," Ritz said.
"Our government has provided the resources to hire more than 700 additional inspectors, which includes 170 dedicated to meat inspection."
The CFIA did not respond to a request by The Canadian Press to detail the 700 new inspectors or other budgetary matters.
But the agency's own annual reports call into question Ritz's claims.
According to the CFIA's plans and priorities report from May 2012, spending on food safety this year will be $340.3 million, falling slightly to $337.5 million by 2014-15.
That's less than was spent on food safety the year before the Harper Conservatives came to power ($341.5 million) and considerably less than the $379 million the CFIA spent on food safety in 2006-07, the Conservatives' first full year in power.
The claim of 700-plus new inspectors is less simple to refute or confirm.
Bob Kingston, president of the Agriculture Union, said the guild has been asking the CFIA since 2008 for a breakdown of the 700 new hires. "We have yet to get it."
By the union's calculation, 200 of the 700 were hired to control the import of invasive species, plants and diseases — an initiative that started before the Conservatives came to power.
Another 170 inspectors were hired to do compliance verification, mostly involving processed meat plants, following the deadly 2008 listeria outbreak, as recommended in a government report by Sheila Weatherill.
The remaining 330-plus inspectors, the union suggests, includes "basically ... anybody hired at CFIA in the technical category" — jobs as diverse as seed analysis and lumber certification.
"What I can tell you is that the number of those 700 that went into meat slaughter plants is zero," Kingston said Wednesday in an interview.
And yet the production speed and volume of carcasses passing through a plant like XL's has dramatically increased in recent years.
CFIA inspectors used to directly scrutinize the carcass trim, where the E. coli was found in this instance, said Kingston. Now "high line speed" has been implemented in the plant, inspectors can't keep up and the process has been farmed out to employees.
"It is a form of self-regulation," said the union president.
"That happens whenever they move to a faster production process. Instead of bringing more inspectors in to keep a balance with the number of carcasses being produced, they just drop inspection stations and turn that responsibility over to the plant."
Ritz was asked directly Wednesday about the 170 meat inspectors hired by the CFIA, and specifically whether there are any additional inspectors at slaughter plants.
The minister responded by saying he could "speak specifically to the XL plant in Brooks."
"There is a full contingent of inspectors on site, and there was before this incident," said Ritz, listing 40 inspectors and six veterinarians.
"That is a 20 per cent increase over the last couple of years. So we are ramping it up."
Kingston puts another spin on those same numbers.
The XL plant may have a "full contingent" now, but only after repeated union complaints to fill empty positions at the facility.
"That plant was grossly — to the point of illegally — understaffed," Kingston claimed.
"All they've done is fill vacant positions. That's not quite the same as actually increasing the complement."
As for the overall 700 new inspectors everyone from the prime minister down has been citing in defence of the government's handling of the E. coli outbreak, Kingston says the number is meaningless.
"It's totally misleading to the Canadian public," he said. "It's not even worth discussing those numbers because they're simply not relevant to what's happened at XL beef."
"None of those 700 people went into slaughter plants — period."