Glacier FarmMedia Response to COVID-19

Meat packing sector needs federal inspectors

Shared staff, recalling recent retirees among options on table

packing plant
(Photo courtesy Canada Beef Inc.)

The federal government is working on ways it can maintain inspection staffing levels at federally-licensed meat packing plants.

Speaking to media Saturday in Ottawa, Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau addressed concerns surrounding the ability of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to continue meat inspection work.

The Reuters news service on Monday quoted two unnamed sources directly familiar with the matter as saying CFIA had informed meat packers on Friday that it plans to reduce its staffed hours at federally inspected plants, because of capacity constraints.

It’s not yet clear when the reduced staffing — which would end overtime and Saturday shifts — would take effect, Reuters reported.

The agency’s announcement comes amid a coronavirus-related spike in meat demand as consumers stockpile food, which has turned up in the past few days in rising cash prices for livestock and in feeder cattle and lean hog futures.

“There are challenges around human resources at CFIA, mainly for our inspectors,” Bibeau said, adding she is working with industry and provinces on the issue.

She said she is working with the industry and is consulting the provinces on how they can share resources, such as provincial inspectors, and “find different ways to make (the process) easier and faster,” she said.

CFIA is also calling back inspectors who have retired recently, she said.

She acknowledged there’s “a challenge in terms of capacity, but we are working it out right now.”

Gary Stordy, director of government and corporate affairs for the Canadian Pork Council, said there is a heightened focus on safety, but also on flexibility.

“At the end of the day, we need to have some flexibility in order to make sure that those plants continue to operate,” he said, adding there is not going to be a shortage or drop in the number of hogs available.

“Those animals need a place to be shipped to, and frankly they don’t always have time to wait.”

Stordy said he is not expecting any noticeable impacts on the consumer.

“The plants are taking steps to prevent any severe disruption in their operations, they are building up supplies, they are taking steps to protect employees. They have animals coming through, and all these measures are really to prevent a major disruption,” he said, adding there are already what he characterized as “irritants, delays and increased costs.”

— D.C. Fraser reports for Glacier FarmMedia from Ottawa.

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