Ont. Must do Better Job Following up on Food Safety Violations: Auditor General
By Maria Babbage The Canadian PressFeatures New Technology Production
December 9, 2008- Ontario needs to be more vigilant about food safety violations at meat
and dairy plants, many of which have been flagged for potential
problems, the province’s auditor general has warned.
The government isn’t doing enough to check up on provincially regulated slaughterhouses and meat-processing plants that were cited for major sanitation violations, Auditor General Jim McCarter wrote in his annual report.
The province has also renewed licences for some dairy plants and milk distributors before an inspection was even completed or received, his report found.
“Consumers in Ontario would have a higher level of comfort if the deficiencies that we pointed out in our audit were corrected by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food,’’ he said after releasing his report.
“It would lessen the risk.”
About half of all provincially regulated abattoirs and free-standing meat processors didn’t comply with at least 10 per cent of the provincial standards, the report said.
Some plants were in violation of more than 30 per cent of the standards, many of which were repeat violations, it found.
Inspectors were finding the same “major and serious” violations year after year, with no followup to make sure they were being corrected, McCarter said.
At the same time, plants with fewer violations were being inspected more frequently than those with 40 to 60 violations, he noted.
Tests conducted on processed milk and cheese products also suggest a number of plants in the province might have sanitation problems, his report said.
More than half of the 19 plants whose milk was tested last year by the ministry exceeded bacterial limits. Similarly, after testing cheese products in 13 of 56 plants, the province found four plants didn’t meet the cut.
In both cases, additional testing determined there was no immediate health threat, the report noted.
Those tests should have set off alarm bells, even though inspectors don’t routinely test for bacteria in either dairy or meat processing plants, McCarter said.
“They didn’t conduct any kind of rigorous followup to see what the problem was,’’ he said.
“Nor did they take that into account and basically say, ‘You know what? We should be increasing the level of inspections that we’re doing in this facility.”’
The province licenses dairy processing plants and milk distributors, but only inspects about 30 of the 120 dairy plants in Ontario. The rest are inspected by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
The report noted that while there were 387 active licences for milk distribution, only 21 establishments were inspected by the ministry last year.
The province is also dragging its feet when it comes to inspecting meat processors, McCarter suggested.
Three years after promising to inspect all free-standing meat processors, the province has only completed licensing inspections for 80 of the 290 facilities, he said.
“Our point was, `It’s been three years, why didn’t you get in there and do the licensing inspection and rate these plants?’’’ he said.
Many Canadians have been on high alert about food safety following a recent listeriosis outbreak that was linked to 20 deaths across Canada.
The outbreak, which was traced to a Maple Leaf Foods processing plant in Toronto, has prompted calls for food inspection systems to be revamped.
Agriculture Minister Leona Dombrowsky said the province has already taken action on some of McCarter’s recommendations.
She noted that Ontario now has 170 inspectors, up from 10 when the Liberals took office in 2003.
“We really are plowing new ground here,’’ she said.
“I would offer that if you did a jurisdictional scan across Canada, the regulations that we have in place are the most rigid, because it is a priority for us.’’
If food safety is such a big priority for the Liberals, it’s certainly hard to tell from McCarten’s report, opposition leaders said.
“The actual sections that the auditor general sets out – they’re scary,’’ said NDP Leader Howard Hampton.
“At a time when we saw the Listeria impacts federally, you would think that the McGuinty government would be treating this issue of public safety, public protection more seriously.”
Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory was equally scathing in his appraisal of the government’s track record on food inspection.
“I think it makes a farce of the law if you have these regulations and have inspectors, but then you don’t get out to places or you let people offend over and over again,’’ he said.
McCarter’s report noted the ministry hadn’t adjusted its inspections since a 2006 study found a high prevalence rate for E. coli and coliforms on equipment and food-contact surfaces among 48 Toronto-area meat processors.
McCarter is recommending the province also strengthen legislation to give it more authority to enforce food safety for fruits and vegetables.
Currently, the province doesn’t have the authority to do much more than educate producers on how to prevent the high levels of chemicals and contaminants that can be found on produce, he said.
Dombrowsky said Ottawa needs to take charge of that issue, since produce sold in Ontario is often grown outside the country.
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