Union still worried about food safety staffing levels

New technology is playing a key role in changing how food is inspected and how investigations are carried out at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.


Unlike two years ago, this time there have been few of the commonly heard union complaints that the changes are really a roundabout way to reduce the staff. 


“We’re not in crisis mode. They (the agency) are certainly in a major change mode,” said Fabian Murphy, first national executive vice-president of the Syndicat Agriculture Union.


The organization represents 8,000 workers in federal departments and agencies connected to agriculture.


Two years ago, cuts to staff levels during the previous government had the union sounding the alarm about the ability of agency workers to properly respond to food safety issues. 


Since 2016, agency figures indicate staff levels jumped to 6,927 employees in 2016-17 from 6,378 employees in 2013-14. About half of the agency’s staff is dedicated to food safety.


“This includes not only food recall specialists but also field inspectors, inspection specialists and laboratory analysts, all of whom have a role to play in food safety investigations and recalls,” wrote agency spokesperson Maria Kubacki in an email. 


And part of the modernization process is to look at current staffing levels and what will be required for the new inspection processes and make sure they’re fully staffed.


“We’re feeling a lot better about the relationship that we have with CFIA with regards to talking about what the requirement is for the new inspection modernization program,” Murphy said.


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Nevertheless, union members remain concerned. A recent online survey for the union conducted by Abacus Data showed food safety inspectors indicate they feel staffing is still too low. 


Of the 488 union representatives surveyed, only one-third indicated inspection staff levels where they were stationed were regularly high enough, and nearly half felt staff shortages had increased Canadians’ risk of exposure to food-borne illness.


It is not known if current staffing levels will be adequate to handle the changes in the agency’s en-hanced responsibilities as regulations under the Safe Food For Canadians Act are introduced, Murphy said. Passed in 2012, the act folds the agency’s authority derived from four previous acts under one piece of legislation.


The new legislation also adds to the agency’s responsibilities, having it, for instance, enforce new prohibitions concerning deceptive marketing and allowing it to develop regulations to help trace and recall food. There are changes to import monitoring as well.


Public consultation on the act’s proposed regulations closed earlier this year and the agency plans to introduce finalized regulations in the spring of 2018.


In a recent news release, the union applauded the agency’s decision to shelve some proposed changes, such as having inspectors and frontline supervisors work outside their areas of expertise.


“After years of budget cuts under the previous government, these changes were all about managing a staff shortage,” Murphy said in the release. 


Other modernization changes have already been rolled out and new pilot programs are coming in the near future, Murphy said. 


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Which other industry players will fall under the new legislation and what the new inspection regime will look like remain unknown.


Aline Dimitri, Canada’s deputy chief food safety officer, said the agency will not so much police new industries as it will monitor how the existing industry meets a greater and more specific range of re-quirements to keep food safe.


“We’re also going to have a licensing system where all importers will have to be potentially licensed. So … we have better tools to know who they are, to assess the risk associated to what they’re doing and to be able to take action as appropriate.”


Dimitri said one development in streamlining inspection is using data to create an establishment-based risk assessment algorithm that will allow the agency to determine how often inspectors need to visit different establishments.


The agency has been working with the dairy sector to pilot the algorithm and plans to roll it out to cover registered commodities too. 


Processing plants and transportation are key targets of the specialized risk assessment. 


“We’re not in the slaughterhouses at this point; we’re certainly not on farm because that is not a federal responsibility; it is a provincial one,” Dimitri said.


Modernization has already affected the roughly 3,000 food investigations the agency conducts annually. For instance, the agency now uses genomics to identify a contamination culprit. 


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On its website, the agency de-scribes the difference between using older biochemical practices and genomic approach as “like the difference between a detective only knowing a suspect’s height and rough physical description compared to having the suspect’s fingerprints and behaviour profile.”