March 31 (Reuters) - The Canadian government, under pressure to eliminate its budget deficit, has reduced the frequency of inspections at certain Alberta meat-packing plants and plans to cut spending on food safety, the food inspectors’ union said on Tuesday.
The cutbacks follow two major meat recalls over food-borne illness in recent years. Ottawa had made some improvements to meat inspections after those outbreaks but the Conservative government now risks reversing that progress, said Bob Kingston, president of the Agriculture Union.
A spokeswoman for Health Minister Rona Ambrose referred the matter to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. A spokesperson for the CFIA could not be immediately reached for comment.
An outbreak of listeriosis, a bacterial infection, from Maple Leaf Foods deli meat killed 22 people in 2008 and led to an independent report that flagged a shortage of food-safety workers and insufficient training of inspectors.
In 2012, Canada recalled millions of pounds of beef tainted with E. coli bacteria produced at a former XL Foods plant at Brooks, Alberta.
“I don’t think the lessons learned from either Maple Leaf or (Brooks) were in fact learned,” Kingston said in a phone interview from Edmonton.
The union, citing internal sources, said the CFIA instructed northern Alberta staff as of Jan. 5 to cut by 50 percent general sanitation inspection activities - which include reviews of record-keeping and inspection results - and inspections of plants prior to operations.
CFIA has also reduced the number of days inspectors work in northern Alberta plants that produce meat for Canadians, including Capital Packers and Lilydale Inc, to three from five days a week, the union said.
CFIA has, however, maintained daily presence of inspectors at plants that export to the United States, such as Cargill Ltd’s Spruce Grove, Alberta beef plant, to meet American standards, it added.
An excerpt of a 2014-15 CFIA report approved by Ambrose and obtained by the union, estimated that the government would cut spending on food safety by about C$35 million to a total of C$286 million in 2016-17, and eliminate 192 full-time equivalent jobs. The union said CFIA is also leaving some inspector positions vacant and has deferred training.
Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson and Christian Plumb