OTTAWA — The Conservative government, under fire for its response to a massive beef recall and E. coli scare, is planning to spend tens of millions of dollars less this year on food safety programs at the Agriculture Department and Canadian Food Inspection Agency than last year, new numbers from Parliament’s budget watchdog indicate.
This comes as Canada’s food inspection agency admitted Wednesday that on some days in late August and early September more than five per cent of the meat produced at an Alberta plant was testing positive for a potentially fatal bacteria.
An analysis of expected federal spending released Wednesday by the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer says approved budgetary expenditures on "food safety and biosecurity risk management systems" at the Agriculture Department are 27 per cent lower in 2012-13 compared with the previous fiscal year, while planned "food safety program" funding is about five per cent less at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
During an emergency debate Wednesday night in the Commons, the government denied that it had cut spending at the CFIA.
"Contrary to what some have asserted, we have made significant investments in food safety," said Pierre Lemieux, the parliamentary secretary to Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz. "There has been no cut."
The debate, granted after an opposition request Wednesday afternoon, saw few government and opposition MPs in the Commons. Ritz was not in attendance after spending the day in Alberta touring the meat processing plant at the heart of the outbreak.
"They are cutting corners and that cutting of corners has led to this outbreak," said Liberal MP Frank Valeriote during the emergency debate.
"We have some of the finest inspectors in the world, but they are hamstrung by a lack of resources," Valeriote said. "Clearly, we have seen the industry … can no longer be left alone to police itself."
The new PBO examination of budgetary expenditures by strategic outcome and program activity says planned spending for "food safety and biosecurity risk management systems" at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is projected to be reduced by almost $32 million, to approximately $85 million in 2012-13 from more than $116 million in 2011-12.
At CFIA, planned federal spending on the "food safety program" is projected to shrink almost $16 million, to $315 million in 2012-13 from $331 million in 2011-12, according to the PBO analysis, which was released Wednesday with a report on the government’s first-quarter spending trends.
The Harper government promised in the March federal budget an additional $51 million over two years to enhance food safety. Since it came to power in 2006, the Conservative government says it has provided funding for the CFIA to hire more than 700 new inspection staff, including 170 dedicated to meat inspection.
However, the union representing inspectors disputed those numbers, saying that 200 of those new staff are responsible for protecting the food chain from invasive species, nothing to do with checking for E. coli.
Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae said the country will never have enough inspectors to be everywhere at all times. However, he said the government needs to ensure inspectors have the training, tools and resources they need to "be the best" in food safety.
"The government has to come clean," Rae said. "This is a problem that requires robust government capacity, a robust capacity to protect the public interest and a robust capacity to protect the public health."
Officials with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada couldn’t immediately respond to the planned spending reductions, or their potential impacts on food safety programs.
Under industry norms for food safety and voluntary U.S guidelines, Alberta’s XL Foods Inc. should have diverted every single kilogram of that production to cooking or a landfill. Instead possibly tainted fresh product that’s now part of the country’s biggest beef recall was shipped to restaurants and grocery stores around Canada.
"There were days perhaps that were over five per cent," said Richard Arsenault, CFIA’s director of meat inspections. "We’re not going to pretend we got it right. We’re going to do everything we can to get it right going forward."
Asked Wednesday if CFIA would impose mandatory testing and diversion rules on the meat packing industry, Arsenault said: "I won’t predict that outcome until I can sit down and write and get the signatures, but we are certainly going to have the lessons applied across the board and if that means we will issue guidance or instructions we are certainly not going to hesitate from doing that."
The agency was unaware of the festering food crisis until Sept. 4 when American officials intercepted a shipment of contaminated beef trim at the border and Canadian inspectors found a contaminated lot at an unidentified Calgary facility.
Inspectors would then wait two days to formally ask XL to see the test records that would reveal the problem, and four more for them to be provided by the company. By the time the test results were supplied, at least five people had fallen ill from E.coli poisoning after eating steak at an Edmonton barbecue that was tainted with bacteria that now has been linked to the Alberta-based Brooks facility.
"We’re going to take those lessons and apply them to the rest of industry," said Arsenault, "because for us food safety isn’t one single plant it’s about the entire industry."
In the wake of a second set of positive tests at the border on Sept. 12, which prompted a U.S ban on XL product, CFIA launched an in-depth review that also found that the company wasn’t always following its "bracketing" protocol of diverting each lot or carcass before and after one that tested positive.
After visiting the Brooks facility Wednesday, Ritz told reporters in Calgary the XL plant will only resume operations after CFIA has confirmed in writing that the health of Canadians is not at risk.
"Canadians are and will continue to be our first priority," Ritz said.
With files from the Calgary Herald.