Can we really afford to cut food inspectors? Listeria scare has Sobeys recalling salad bags

Nadine Kalinauskas
Good News Writer
Daily Brew

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is warning the public of possible Listeria monocytogenes contamination in Earth Green Brand Organic Italian Blend salad.

No illnesses have yet been linked to eating the salads.

Sobeys Quebec Inc., the distributor of the salad bags in Canada's eastern provinces, is voluntarily recalling the salad bags over the warning. The CFIA is motoring the recall.

The salads in question have the UPC code 8 18431 00107 3, the best before date of 2012 JL 13 and lot code 2217915MI, CBC News reports.

The Listeria monocytogenes bacteria can cause listeriosis, an illness that can cause high fever, nick stiffness, severe headaches and nausea. The CFIA warns that food contaminated with the bacteria may not look or smell spoiled.

"Do not consume the product — discard it, destroy it. There is no cure for it in terms of cooking," food safety and recall specialist Shashi Kulkarni told CBC News Nova Scotia.

The Listeria scare comes following the news that the federal government will slash the CFIA's budget by $56 million over the next three years.

[ Related: Chef serves up raw meat protest in Windsor ]

While Ottawa promises that meat inspectors won't be laid off, hundreds of other inspectors and agency employees will lose their jobs.

"I know times are tough and there are cutbacks in a lot of places, but I don't think your food source is one of them to be chancy with," Karen Clark, whose mother, Frances, died in the deadly listeriosis outbreak of 2008, told the Huffington Post. "They're just looking for another disaster."

Twenty-two deaths and 35 illnesses were linked to contaminated Maple Leaf Foods deli meats that year, the Globe and Mail reports.

Both the government and the CFIA are trying to reassure the public that most of the cuts are administrative and won't pose a risk to food safety in Canada:

"No food safety-related inspectors will be declared surplus and we have not, and will not, reduce staff or cut programs that would in any way place the health and safety of Canadians at risk," the CFIA said in a statement.

Not everyone agrees.

"It's impossible to cut that many people and not affect food safety," Bob Kingston, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada's Agriculture Union told the Globe and Mail.

The Huffington Post reports that "Sam Barlin, the only inspector in Manitoba responsible for inspecting honey and processed fruits and vegetables, will lose his job as part of the cuts."

These foods are typically less risky than meats or raw spinach. Still, Barlin has found contaminated honey and unlabeled allergens in his inspections that will now go unnoticed.

"If a commodity is considered low risk, is it a hazard?" said Barlin. "There is definitely a food safety element to all of the inspections that I do."

Phil Marchuk of Windsor Freezer says inspectors are already at a shortage. In the Windsor region, there are only three meat inspectors. He says that only one in 10 trucks containing meat shipped from the U.S. and Mexico are inspected before the meat is sold in Canada. And the trucks that are inspected often wait up to 12 hours for their inspections.

"That's my biggest fear," he told CBC News, concerned about the upcoming cuts. "You've got to think this trucking industry goes 24 hours a day. There is fresh product coming through the border, you think you'd want to keep it moving, not sitting here for 12 hours, waiting for an inspector to come in."

Should Marchuk's greatest fear be ours, too? This week's Listeria warning stemmed from an inspection's findings. With cuts coming, will be only be notified of contaminated foods after illnesses — or worse, deaths — are reported?