03/31/2015 01:34 EDT | Updated 05/31/2015 05:59 EDT

Canada's Critical Shortage Of Meat Inspectors Putting People At Risk: Union

EDMONTON - The union representing Canada's meat inspectors says a critical shortage of inspectors is putting the safety of consumers at risk across the country.

Bob Kingston, president of the Agriculture Union, told a news conference in Edmonton that only 12 of 18 meat hygiene inspection positions are filled at processing plants in northern Alberta. The numbers are the same in the Calgary region.

In January, he said, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency also instructed staff in the northern part of the province to cut general sanitation inspection work by 50 per cent.

Kingston said a lack of funding is creating similar problems and concerns at facilities across Canada, and the federal government needs to put more money into meat safety.

"The entire beef basket of Canada is in the same corral," he said Tuesday.

"This government has a lot to say about protecting Canadians and I'm hoping they realize that these are more than just numbers on paper ... There are lives at risk — the real likelihood that people are going to die."

The union, part of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, released a CFIA document from December 2014 that calls for a reduced work plan for inspectors in northern Alberta.

Kingston said some inspectors are worried sick about declining safety standards and others have quit.

"They just can't take the pressure anymore."

The union has been raising the staff shortage issue for more than a year, said Kingston, and the government promised that money would be coming to fill vacant inspector jobs. Instead, he said, the government decided to cut back on inspections.

Last week, the CFIA announced that Lilydale Inc. was recalling packages of roast chicken breasts over concerns about possible Listeria contamination. The product was distributed in Ontario, Alberta, B.C., Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

The Edmonton plant that processed the chicken is getting three inspections a week and less monitoring, Kingston said.

But all meat destined for the United States comes from plants that are inspected every 12 hours that they are open, he added.

"This government and the agency is committed to exports," said Marianne Hladun, the Prairies vice-president with PSAC.

She added that the CFIA plans to spend $78 million less on food safety next year than it did in 2013-14.

The CFIA said in a statement that it's overall spending has actually increased and the number of its inspectors fluctuates due to changes in demand for service.

"It is important to note that differences in inspection procedures are trade related, but not food safety related," it said.

NDP Agriculture critic Malcolm Allen said the government is creating a two-tiered food inspection system: one for domestic meat and one for meat bound for export. He called for a reversal of the funding cuts.

In 2013, the federal government promised to bolster the food safety system by improving inspections after an E. coli outbreak at the XL Foods Inc. plant in Brooks, Alta., sickened 18 people and led to the largest beef recall in Canadian history.

The federal government also said it strengthened its food-safety protocols after a listeria outbreak in 2008. Twenty-two people died and hundreds more fell ill after eating contaminated deli meats from a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto.

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