Food inspector grilled over conflict of interest

Employee suspended after working for meat company in another jurisdiction

This instalment of You Make the Call looks at a government meat inspector who was disciplined over conflict of interest concerns.

Frank Duske was a feed specialist in Lethbridge, Alta., for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Over a 24-year career with the agency, he held several other positions, including that of a meat inspector.

The agency was very concerned with maintaining a public reputation of impartiality as a regulator of the meat and food business. As a result it has a Conflict of Interest and Post-Employment Code, which prohibits employees from having private interests that could affect or be perceived to affect their duties with the agency. The code requires all employees to review their personal and professional interests to “identify and avoid any actual or potential conflicts of interest.

The agency oversees the muskox harvest, a slaughter of muskox by Inuit in northern Canada. It inspects and regulates all aspects of the harvest to ensure the meat is safe for consumption.

In 1995, Duske was asked by the Northern Corporation, a small company in Rankin Inlet, N.W.T., to help them become a federally regulated meat exporter. Duske agreed to work for the company with the understanding he wouldn’t be working for the agency in the Northwest Territories. He was involved in the setup and operation of the meat processing plant but not the harvest itself.

On July 20, 1998, Duske submitted a conflict of interest form to the agency. He explained his duties as mostly training employees and emphasized he wasn’t involved in meat inspection. He didn’t receive a response until May 9, 2000, when the agency informed him his work with Northern created a perceived conflict of interest and he should cease his employment there or face disciplinary action. Duske disagreed and didn’t understand why it took so long but complied.

Duske was given another letter on Dec. 14, 2001, reiterating the perceived conflict of interest and future similar activities would result in discipline.

Duske was given a verbal approval to work during the 2002 harvest, but not after. He didn’t hear anything from the agency so he took leave in March and November 2003 to work during the muskox harvests in those months.

The agency learned of Duske’s participation in the 2003 harvests and imposed a 10-day suspension effective May 31, 2004, referring to the previous warnings. It also required him to submit a conflict of interest report twice a year and failure to do so would subject him to “more severe disciplinary action up to and including termination.”
You Make the Call

Did Duske’s participation in the 2003 harvest constitute a conflict of interest and insubordination?
Did the agency fail to properly investigate the nature of his work and unfairly impose the discipline?

If you said there was a conflict of interest and Duske was insubordinate when he continued his work on the northern harvest, you’re right.

The adjudicator found the agency’s code clearly defined a conflict of interest as affecting or appearing to affect the impartial performance of an employee’s duties to act in the public interest.

“The reputation of the agency depends on an impartial and arms-length relationship with the industry it regulates,” the adjudicator said. “It seems odd to me that Mr. Duske chose to become involved in this private industry while he was working for the agency.”

The adjudicator found the reasoning for the agency to prohibit his work for Northern was sound and when Duske did so in 2003 it constituted insubordinate conduct. Because insubordination is serious misconduct, the adjudicator found a suspension was appropriate, since “a disciplinary letter would not bring to Mr. Duske an appreciation of the seriousness of the conduct.” See Duske v. Canadian Food Inspection Agency, 2007 CarswellNat 3053 (Can. P.S.L.R.B).

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