01/16/2012 10:30 EST | Updated 03/17/2012 05:12 EDT

Canada Budget Cuts: Meat Inspectors' Union Issues Warning On Government's Food-Safety Program

OTTAWA - The Conservative government's plan to slash spending on food safety could put Canadians at risk of another crisis like the deadly listeriosis outbreak, says the federal meat inspectors' union.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency's latest spending plan proposes deep budget cuts, and the union says the food-safety program will be hit the hardest.

"Make no mistake that food safety costs money, but less safety can cost a lot more, but in terms of money and human suffering," union head Bob Kingston said Monday.

The agency's 2011-12 spending plan proposes to lower its overall budget by a total of $21.5 million and reduce staff by 234 positions.

The bulk of those savings will come at the expense of the food-safety program. The CFIA spending plan proposes a $21.1-million cut to the food-safety program and 207 fewer staff.

But Kingston warned the cuts could go even deeper.

Departments across the federal government have to find ways to reduce their spending between five and 10 per cent.

"If Ottawa proceeds with the cuts it has already announced, plus another 10 per cent, the federal government will be playing roulette with the health of Canadians," Kingston said in a release.

The spending plan also notes "resources will sunset for listeriosis, and for increased frequency of food inspection in meat processing establishments."

The Conservatives boosted food-safety funding after an outbreak of the Listeria bacteria three summers ago. Twenty-three people died and many more got sick after eating contaminated deli meats from a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto.

Maple Leaf apologized, agreed to pay up to $27 million to settle class-action lawsuits and instituted more rigorous testing for Listeria in plants producing ready-to-eat meat.

But the extra listeriosis money runs out this year.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz issued a brief statement in response to the union claims.

"Our government has made real and significant investments to ensure the safety of Canada's food supply," he said in the release.

"Canadian families can be assured that the safety of our food supply will not be affected as federal departments and agencies look for ways to be more efficient and more financially prudent with taxpayers' dollars."

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