Lax meat-import rules open Canada to bioterrorism

Published 1 April 2009

Former Canadian food inspector says the rules governing meat imports into Canada leave Canadians vulnerable to bioterrorism and outbreaks of dangerous bacteria such as listeria

Lax rules governing meat imports leave Canada vulnerable to bioterrorism and outbreaks of dangerous bacteria such as listeria, according to a retired federal food inspector. Paul Caron, who worked for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) for thirty-five years before retiring in 2005, said in a report to the government’s sub-committee on food safety that the threat to food security is real. Caron, who now works as a meat-industry consultant and is on the committee’s list of potential witnesses, will pass on his report to Liberal MP Wayne Easter, vice-chair of committee.

CBC News reports that there are outbreaks of animal diseases such as avian flu and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in many countries, Caron said, and Canada’s own deadly listeria outbreak last summer indicates the potential for the introduction of a food-borne illness from imported meat. Caron said the CFIA pre-clears U.S. meat imports before they enter Canada whereas the United States inspects all meat shipments at its borders.

The agency alerts American exporters at least three days ahead of time if their shipments will be checked, Caron said, which could afford “unsavory” exporters the opportunity to dump unsafe meats in Canada. He also said Canada’s pre-border clearance makes smuggling contraband across the border into Canada or carrying out acts of bioterrorism that much easier. One in every ten shipments to Canada is sent to inspection facilities for a closer look by a CFIA inspector. Depending on where the meat is going, these facilities can be hundreds of kilometers from the border, Caron’s report says. Companies can also choose which facility inspects their meat, which opens the door for importers and processors to “potentially choose an inspector who is more lenient in general, or worse yet, potentially an inspector with whom they have an arrangement,” Caron writes.

The report says many inspectors are simply new to the job and lack the training and expertise to spot dicey meats. Turnaround time is another issue. The report says it can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to do a proper inspection. “Inspection managers are under pressure to satisfy all client demands for service,” Caron’s report says. “To satisfy these demands, CFIA inspectors are encouraged by managers to cut time by not following proper procedures.”

Caron said he witnessed this during his career as a meat inspector at the CFIA. “I haven’t seen an inspector ever follow the procedure the way it’s supposed to be followed,” he said in an interview. “A lot of it is because they’re overwhelmed with the work they have to do. They’re cutting corners. A lot of it is because of lack of training.”

No one from the CFIA was available for an interview. In an e-mail, an agency spokesman said all federally licensed and registered inspection facilities must meet the same requirements. Spokesman Tim O’Connor also said the CFIA tracks all shipments that aren’t presented for full inspection before the meat is sold in Canada.

During last summer’s listeriosis crisis, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said that since 2006, the Conservatives added $113 million to the food inspection agency’s budget and hired 200 new inspectors. The Agriculture Union, which represents federal food inspectors, countered at the time that most of those new employees are not working as meat inspectors. The CFIA acknowledged this month in a letter to MPs on the food safety sub-committee that it can’t track how many meat inspectors it has.