OTTAWA (CP) -- Canada's food watchdog is poised to raid its already-cash-strapped operational budget to build an internal contingency fund for emergencies such as last summer's deadly listeria outbreak, claims the union representing government inspectors.
And that suggests the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is robbing Peter to pay Paul, says the head of the agricultural section of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.
While the CFIA is officially denying the allegation, union head Bob Kingston told The Canadian Press he learned of the change from multiple senior agency managers.
He said he's been told cuts to operations will average between 10 and 15 percent nationally and regionally go as high as 20 percent in Ontario.
"Basically right now in CFIA it's common knowledge," said Kingston. "Most employees are aware of the fact, they've been told there's operation cutbacks coming this year."
In an emailed response, the CFIA denied there will be any reduction in operational budgets.
It said a $20 million emergency fund has existed since 2003 -- albeit a fund controlled by Treasury Board and accessed only once by the CFIA during the 2004 avian influenza outbreak.
The agency email then added this qualifier:
"This year the budget allocation process has been improved to create more flexibility beyond the emergency fund, to reallocate funds throughout the year to higher inspection priorities. Our goal is to ensure that funds are made available to the highest priority activities of the agency, food safety being the highest."
It did not explain the source of these "reallocated" funds, or what other priority inspections would be affected.
Kingston maintains that CFIA managers, who already have difficulty fulfilling their mandate due to lack of manpower, are "going to be cannibalizing themselves."
Perversely, curtailing routine operations could conceivably lead to more emergencies.
"They're going to have to keep their fingers crossed and hope it doesn't," said Kingston, a former CFIA food inspection supervisor.
"They know that for every dollar they hold back to build this fund, that means a decrease in surveillance and decrease in inspections."
A contingency fund is a good idea, added Kingston, but it should come from a separate, dedicated government funding increase.
"The Harper government said they're going to do whatever it takes to ensure there's safe food. But they seem to be a lot more willing to talk about it than do anything about it."
The union allegation came as a special House of Commons committee was about to begin hearing witnesses Monday in a study of last year's deadly listeria outbreak that claimed at least 20 lives.
The CFIA released two "lessons learned" reports Friday afternoon addressing the outbreak, which was traced to a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto.
The reports acknowledged a shortage of "surge capacity" in the event of emergencies.
"There is a need to consider mechanisms to increase the pool of technical staff so that there is adequate back up during emergencies, and for vacation periods," said the CFIA report.
"Respondents noted that capacity and succession planning needs are particularly evident in the Meat Hygiene Program."
NDP MP Malcolm Allen, a member of the special Commons committee, said the CFIA is "stretched to the limit as it is now."
"One of the things the public is clearly saying is that they want folks from CFIA to be inspecting meat on the front line and doing the actual inspections -- not doing paperwork," said Allen.
The plan described by the union, said the MP from Welland, Ont., likely means fewer inspections and more paperwork.