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Video surveillance cameras at food processing plant questioned

PIPEDA Case Summary #2005-290

(Principle 4.3; paragraphs 7(2)(a) and (b); subsection 5(3))


A Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) employee working at a federally registered meat processing plant complained that the company was collecting his personal information by way of video cameras without his consent, and had disclosed it to his employer in an attempt to undermine his work and the work of the other federal inspectors at the plant.

Summary of Investigation

The CFIA is responsible for the administration and enforcement of the Canadian Meat Inspection Act and Regulations (1990), which sets out standards for food safety in meat processing plants, and for four other related pieces of legislation. The CFIA oversees a comprehensive meat inspection program at all federally registered establishments. It appoints a Veterinarian in Charge at each registered facility, who works on site and is assisted by one or more lay inspectors. The roles and responsibilities of the CFIA staff and of the facility are set out in a manual of procedures that provides specific guidance to the facility on how it can achieve compliance under the Meat Inspection Act. The facility must provide CFIA staff with an on-site office and equipment; an inspection station (for the exclusive use of CFIA staff), which is a platform located at the point in the assembly line where animals are eviscerated; and a station for the examination by the Veterinarian of carcasses that have been screened out by the inspectors for veterinary disposition. The complainant is a Veterinarian in Charge at the plant, and he works with two lay inspectors.

CFIA employees have unfettered access to a facility in their inspection role. Under the Meat Inspection Act, there is to be no obstruction or hindrance to a federal inspector undertaking their duties. Inspectors monitor all aspects of the treatment of the animals, the personal hygiene of plant employees, the lockers, washrooms, and lunchrooms, and have the authority if necessary to shut down the production line or refuse to certify the safety of the product. The inspector identifies deficiencies in achieving compliance with regulatory standards, and advises the company on necessary remedial steps.

The plant manager of the organization in question is responsible for the production line, and has three team leaders who work on the production floor under his direction. The company installed video cameras in 2001. It does not have policies or procedures governing the use of the cameras, and did not consult with or inform CFIA employees prior to the installation.

There are 15 cameras on site, located at entry and exit points, and in all areas of the plant, including the evisceration room where CFIA employees have their workstations. The cameras are motion activated, but have no pan or zoom capacity. They record digitally on the hard drive and automatically overwrite when the memory is used up. The cameras are used by the plant manager, who has a monitor in his office.

The camera in the evisceration room captures the CFIA employees at their workstations. Since the CFIA employees also monitor the other areas of the facility, their images may also be captured by other cameras as they move through the work site.

The company stated that the cameras are used to address security concerns and to monitor hygiene, safety and product safety. In support of the security argument, the company cited an incident where one of its trucks was stolen, and the company was able to provide police with a photograph of the theft because of the cameras. Equipment and meat products had also been stolen. The complainant did not dispute that cameras could be useful for security purposes, and did not take issue with their installation at entry and exit points to the facility for such a purpose.

As for the other purposes, the company indicated that the cameras enable the plant manager to respond quickly to problems that might result in an interruption in the production line. For example, if there is a mechanical failure, the manager will know immediately where the plant mechanic is working and will be able to call him to the problem site. The plant manager and his lead hands use walkie-talkies to communicate immediately with respect to issues on the production line.

The company did not provide the Office with examples of how the cameras have helped it address food safety concerns. According to witnesses, the cameras are unable to capture detailed images of the condition of each animal, and would therefore not be of use with respect to product safety.

The company stated that meat processing plants are under increasing pressure to conform to standards regarding the ethical treatment of animals, and cameras assist in achieving this objective. For example, animals must be unloaded in a particular way, and the cameras might capture an image of inappropriate handling.

When the complainant questioned the company about the cameras at the time of installation, he was told that they would not be used to observe him. However, there were documented incidents where the company had disclosed information about the complainant, recorded by the cameras, to his supervisor at the CFIA. As well, company officials had met with senior CFIA managers to show them videotape footage of the complainant's workstation to support the company's contention that the complainant was overly zealous in his work. The Office confirmed with the CFIA that these incidents occurred prior to January 1, 2004, and that there have been no subsequent attempts to use videotape footage since. The CFIA also wrote to the company informing management that it would not review video surveillance tapes under any circumstances.

The Office spoke to the Veterinarian in Charge of another federal establishment that slaughters poultry. This facility has also installed video cameras at exit and entry points, and in some production areas. However, there are no cameras trained on the workstations of the lay inspectors and Veterinarian.

The Veterinarian in Charge at a third federal establishment informed us that this facility has also installed video cameras. The veterinarian understands that one of the purposes of the cameras is to monitor the work performance of the CFIA staff.

We spoke to a company representative responsible for compliance with federal regulatory programs at a large Canadian poultry processing company, and were informed that it is planning to install video surveillance cameras at entry and exit points to its facilities. It does not currently use cameras to monitor activity on its production lines or to monitor food safety, nor does it intend to use them for these purposes.


Issued January 27, 2005

Application: Principle 4.3 states that the knowledge and consent of the individual are required for the collection, use, or disclosure of personal information, except where inappropriate. Exceptions to consent are outlined in section 7 of the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (the Act). Two paragraphs that are relevant to these complaints are paragraph 7(2)(a), which allows an organization to use personal information without the individual's knowledge and consent only if in the course of its activities, the organization becomes aware of information that it has reasonable grounds to believe could be useful in the investigation of a contravention of the laws of Canada, a province or a foreign jurisdiction that has been, is being or is about to be committed, and the information is used for the purpose of investigating that contravention; and paragraph 7(2)(b), which permits an organization to use an individual's personal information without knowledge and consent only if it is used for the purpose of acting in respect of an emergency that threatens the life, health or security of an individual.

Subsection 5(3) establishes that an organization may collect, use or disclose personal information only for purposes that a reasonable person would consider are appropriate in the circumstances.

The Assistant Privacy Commissioner began her deliberations by noting that her findings were limited to collection of the CFIA employees' personal information by the video camera directly trained on their workstation in the evisceration room. She therefore deliberated as follows:

  • The organization cited product safety as its reason for installing a video camera at the CFIA employees' workstation. While such a purpose appeared to be appropriate, the Assistant Commissioner questioned whether it met the four-point test the Office has used in the past when considering the reasonableness of such a measure as video surveillance. The test is as follows:
    • Is the camera demonstrably necessary to meet a specific need?
    • Is it likely to be effective in meeting that need?
    • Is the loss of privacy proportional to the benefit gained?
    • Is there a less privacy-invasive way of achieving the same end?
  • Although the company claimed that the camera was useful in monitoring food safety, it presented no evidence to support this argument. As the Assistant Commissioner noted, the CFIA inspectors and the Veterinarian in Charge are responsible for food safety and quality assurance, and are on site whenever the production line is operating. Moreover, the company has three lead hands who are on the production floor continuously. The Assistant Commissioner found it difficult to understand how having a camera in this area — a camera that cannot provide a clear picture of the animals — ensures product safety when the very people responsible for ensuring product safety are in the room, monitoring production.
  • Thus, the Assistant Commissioner determined that using video surveillance in the evisceration room does not appear to be demonstrably necessary to ensure product safety, nor would it likely be effective in meeting that need. As she noted, the need for product safety was already being met by the federal inspectors. She also commented that the same federal inspectors are responsible for monitoring employee hygiene, and do so while at their workstations. If there were a need to deal quickly with equipment or mechanical failures in the evisceration room, this could be accomplished in a much less privacy-invasive fashion through the deployment of one of the three lead hands.
  • She concluded that there was a clear loss of privacy for the complainant and the other CFIA inspectors with respect to the camera that is trained on their workstations. Indeed, there was some evidence that the company had attempted to use videotapes to undermine the complainant's and lay inspectors' work. However, all of these incidents occurred before January 1, 2004, when the company became subject to PIPEDA, and there have been no attempts since to use the videotapes in such a fashion.
  • In sum, the Assistant Commissioner found that the company was collecting the complainant's personal information without his consent, contrary to Principle 4.3, for a purpose that upon closer examination would not likely be considered appropriate in the circumstances, as outlined by subsection 5(3).

The Assistant Commissioner concluded that the collection complaint was well-founded.

As for the disclosure of the complainant's personal information, collected via videotape, to his employer, the Assistant Commissioner determined that the Office did not have jurisdiction to issue a finding in this regard, as the events in question occurred prior to the full implementation of the Act.

Further Considerations

The Assistant Commissioner recommended that the company remove the video camera from the evisceration room where CFIA staff have their workstations and to report back to her on its progress in this regard.

The Assistant Commissioner also noted that, although the complainant's personal information may be recorded by cameras located in areas other than the evisceration room, this is an inadvertent collection. She cautioned the company that it could only use the personal information of CFIA staff that it advertently collected without their consent in the situations described in paragraphs 7(2)(a) and (b).

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