11/16/2011 01:15 EST | Updated 01/16/2012 05:12 EST

Health at risk due to shoddy meat inspections, Nova Scotia auditor general says

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia's agriculture minister says people should not be worried about eating contaminated meat despite warnings from the provincial auditor general that public health is at risk due to inadequate inspection of meat-packing plants and slaughterhouses.

In his annual report, Jacques Lapointe said the province's 14 meat inspectors were not regularly carrying out sanitary inspections nor enforcing penalties for violations.

Lapointe said there is an informal policy of completing monthly inspections at Nova Scotia's 28 slaughterhouses and 14 meat-processing plants when they are operating.

But his office found eight slaughterhouses had operated between six and 11 months without an inspection, and another three went without one for at least a year.

He said seven meat-processing plants operated for up to a year or more without any inspection.

"The inspection process that is in place now is not adequate to reduce the risk," Lapointe told a news conference.

"It's hard to say what impact it's having at all because it is so severely deficient."

Overall, he said he found 133 deficiencies, the majority of which were sanitary problems. He said 21 of those cases involved problems that were detected again in subsequent inspections.

"This all suggests that some operators are not taking meat safety as seriously as they should," Lapointe said.

He also expressed concern that inspectors are only required to visually examine the cleanliness of a facility and that there is no mandatory test for bacteria.

"Given the overall level of inspection, I guess that isn't surprising," said Lapointe.

That prompted a swift rebuttal from Agriculture Minister John MacDonell, who tried to downplay Lapointe's findings, saying meat products are safe because there's been no record of major health problems in Nova Scotia resulting from contaminated meat.

"There's never been an incident of a health issue that's been connected to any of our slaughterhouses or processing facilities that we've ever been aware of," said MacDonell.

But Lapointe said the government has no way of knowing whether any problems have arisen from the consumption of contaminated meat because it does not keep such information.

Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said what the report found is inexcusable.

"If there is one responsibility of government that we should be able to count on, it is the safety and security of our food supply," said Baillie.

He said the government's "lackadaisical" approach to meat inspections is disturbing, given the Listeria outbreak at a Toronto meat plant in August 2008 that was linked to the deaths of 22 people.

"One need only look to the unfortunate situation in Ontario to know that we have to get this right," said Baillie.

Lapointe makes 16 recommendations to improve meat inspections, including one that calls on the Agriculture Department to adopt policies for bacteria and water testing. He also says the Department should be able to issue penalties such as fines for facilities where problems reoccur and aren't addressed.

MacDonell said his department will comply with all of the recommendations by the end of next summer.

He said many of the deficiencies listed in Lapointe's report cover a wide range of problems from the mundane to the potentially serious — everything from rusty door hinges and burned out light bulbs to a lack of hot water and dirty meat saws.

"It's purely about minimizing risks, doing appropriate procedures and I think better accounting of those procedures," he said.

Lapointe's report said 132,848 animals were slaughtered in facilities monitored by the province last year, during which slaughterhouses were open an average of 66 days.