01/12/2012 03:58 EST | Updated 03/13/2012 05:12 EDT

Overdue inspections, lack of enforcement: Manitoba auditor on food safety

WINNIPEG - A backlog of inspections. Violations that were not followed up. Fines not imposed when they were warranted.

A report this week from Manitoba auditor general Carol Bellringer paints a picture of a food safety system struggling with the workload to ensure the food on people's tables is safe.

"We identified areas where planning and performance measurement, enforcement process and promotion of food safety activities and programs require improvement to better ensure food safety," Bellringer wrote in her annual report to the legislature.

She examined inspections shared by the departments of health — which monitors restaurants and retail outlets — and agriculture, which is in charge of meat processors, farms and warehouses.

The government planned to inspect every facility annually, to look for problems such as unclean surfaces or equipment, or for food that had become too warm or cold. But inspectors managed to get to fewer than half. They often gave advance notice of their visits, which is inconsistent with both departments' informal polices, Bellringer pointed out.

When inspectors found problems, they often failed to follow up with return visits or other checks to ensure the issues were resolved.

"A sample of 20 food-processing establishments and warehouse inspection reports with a total of 90 violations confirmed that none of the violations were followed up. Fourteen of these were critical violations," Bellringer wrote.

Even when inspectors did follow up visits, they sometimes failed to impose fines when problems weren't addressed.

Bellringer's office examined 10 warnings that were issued and found that "in 50 per cent of the cases, the violation had been previously noted at least twice. That meant a warning should have been issued earlier and the warnings should have resulted in fines."

Peter Parys, the province's director of environmental health, said improvements are on the way.

"We've developed some protocols and we're in the process of communicating those protocols to staff so it gives some consistency in how they should be following up in particular situations," Parys said Thursday.

Some situations have occurred because the Agriculture Department took over some inspection duties from the Health Department in 2009. As a result, agriculture inspectors spent part of the ensuing year introducing themselves to facility managers during announced visits.

Wayne Lees, Manitoba's chief veterinarian, said both departments are working on all the recommendations in the auditor's report, and will ensure that violations are tracked and rechecked.

"We've undertaken protocols now to ensure that if there are critical violations, that those will be followed up in a timely manner," Lees said.

The auditor's report also said the government should look at mandatory training for all food-handlers. Such training, which can be a one-day course provided online, is required in six other provinces and in the City of Winnipeg under a municipal bylaw.

The government, in a written response to the auditor's report, said it will examine the idea.