Consumers at risk due to cuts to federal science and inspection programs
Canada-China health committee announcement leaves "a long way to go" to protect consumers.
OTTAWA, November 28, 2007: While public servants complain that cutbacks and privatization of services are threatening their ability to protect the health and safety of Canadians, the Harper government is attempting to play down concerns by announcing a joint Canada-China health committee.
This group is intended to share information, set goals and address issues surrounding food, drug and product regulations, emerging infectious diseases and scientific exchange. The union that represents food and product inspectors, research scientists and lab workers says the move only addresses some of their concerns and doesn't deal with the key question of resources.
Michèle Demers, President of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) calls the move a "first step" in addressing health and safety concerns, but says there is a "very long way to go. Our preoccupations apply to products and foods imported not only from China, but as well as from other countries around the world. It remains to be seen how the monitoring will be done. Will we continue to rely on self-monitoring by foreign producers and assume they comply with Canadian standards? It continues to be critical that Canadian inspectors, in the trenches, be involved in this role to ensure the foods and products that reach our store shelves are safe."
On Monday, Demers went public with concerns raised by her members about how politically-driven resource cuts to federal department have impaired their ability to protect Canadians.
She feels the federal government has put too much emphasis on the police and military aspects of security. "We're sounding an alarm bell to alert government to pay attention to the more global aspect of health and safety and not look strictly at military and border security. There's a bigger picture." Without enough public inspectors and scientists, "We will go from crisis to crisis."
Demers told HarperIndex.ca in a telephone interview, "We've had mad cow disease, foot and mouth disease, potato wart in PEI, lead in plastics, toxic plastics in children's toys and children's; umbrellas. In the absence of a stringent process to inspect all products and to have risk-free food inspection process, danger can come from anywhere."
She says members of her union have repeatedly raised concerns about the effect on public safety of federal cost-cutting policies. For instance, inspections of chicken carcasses in slaughterhouses are now done by slaughterhouse staff rather than by public inspectors.
Under the new "Poultry Rejection Project" set up at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in three Canadian abattoirs, responsibility for inspecting and condemning sick chickens is transferred from CFIA veterinarians to plant employees. Veterinarians supervise the work of these employees during two twenty-minutes periods per day, just three percent of a 24-hour day.
"What happens the other 97% of the time, when there is no supervision of carcass rejection by qualified veterinarians?" asks Demers. "Is this an acceptable level of risk management at a time when what is at risk is the health of Canadians?"
Although Demers says politically-driven public service cuts have been going on for many years, the process has accelerated under the Harper Conservatives. The 2007 federal budget mandated across-the-board savings of five percent in every government department.
"We have all these signals telling us no one is really paying attention to the consequences of cutting operating budgets by five percent."
Canadians are threatened by the government's lack of preparation to deal with the growing volumes of imported foods and manufactured products, says Demers. She says government inspectors don't have the resources to ensure importers are respecting domestic standards, so they reduce how frequently they review new products. For instance, new children's toys are subject to cyclical inspection every one to three years. "What happens to all the other products that come out?" asks Demers.
PIPSC is highlighting the lack of mandatory lead testing of imported children's toys. "Given what weve long known about the dangers of lead from gasoline, paint, and many other sources, lead testing of children's toys would appear to be little more than common sense," said Demers. "Instead, Canadian consumers are expected to rely on a wide range of do-it-yourself testing kits, which have been proven to be unreliable."
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Links and sources
Lead in paint forces recall of duck-handled children's umbrellas, The Canadian Press, November 19, 2007
Imported toys not tested for lead, children's health at risk: union
Inspections inadequate for foods, drugs and consumer products: union, CBC News, November 26, 2007
Canada, China reach consumer safety agreement, CBC News, November 27, 2007
Posted: November 28, 2007
Harper Index (HarperIndex.ca) is a project of the Golden Lake Institute and the online publication StraightGoods.ca