Food safety lost in the shuffle of budget cuts

Two weeks ago the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) was in the news for doing its job – warning Canadians about a recall on frozen ground beef products from a plant that produced approximately 40 percent of all those products in Canada.  The beef was spread all over the country due to a production model that sees fewer producers who service ever larger portions of the national market.  Lucky for Canadians, we had a strong public health policy being enforced by a well-funded agency that was doing its best to warn consumers about the problem.

The CFIA is in the news again thanks to the recent federal budget which has cut the agency by 56 million dollars over the next 3 years.  That is a big chunk of change from an agency charged with keeping our food safe and it’s not as if the agency has been just loafing around either.  From the recent problems with frozen hamburger to melamine-tainted milk products from China, the CFIA is on the job.  They inspect meat processing plants and are responsible for ensuring our ever-growing imported food supply is safe to eat.  Placing them at the altar of across-the-board targeted cuts is foolish and may be dangerous too.

Austerity is one thing, but blind cuts to critical budgets are another altogether.  The CFIA is in the business of ensuring that the food Canadians produce and purchase is safe to consume.  The listeriosis outbreak in the summer of 2008 that claimed the lives of 23 people is an example of why we need a well-funded food inspection agency enforcing strong public health policy.  While no company wants the black-eye that goes with food borne illness or contaminants, it is still unreasonable to assume that any producer or plant will sufficiently inspect itself.  This is especially true in an era of investor-first business theory where companies cut themselves to the bone in order to ensure a return.

I am certain Canadians would be shocked if the government was to characterize the budget they just dropped as one which limits the health and safety controls on Canada’s food producers.  That is why they give budgets names that bear little resemblance to the contents of the document.  For example; despite many budgets with ‘plan for jobs’ as part of the title, Canada has continued to shed full-time, well-paid jobs year after year.  There was no way this budget was going to be called a ‘plan for reducing food security’ or worse if one considers the implication from cuts to Old Age Security or Health Care.

In the end, policy cannot operate in a funding vacuum and the challenges of our modern large-producer agribusinesses mean that outbreaks can have widespread implications in a rapid fashion.  A well funded and hard-working CFIA is critical to ensure that our current production and distribution of food passes the basic tests that keep our population healthy.