(Adds government reaction, opposition attacks)
By Rod Nickel
WINNIPEG, 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.
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 its 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.
The opposition New Democrats said the cuts would endanger Canadian families and asked why beef headed for the United States was inspected better than meat for the domestic market.
Cathy McLeod, parliamentary secretary to Health Minister Rona Ambrose, did not respond directly to the question, telling legislators that Canada had a safe system. She also said the 2014 budget had contained money for 200 extra inspectors.
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 ($27.6 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.
$1=$1.27 Canadian Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson and Christian Plumb