Canadian Food Inspection Agency documents often painted an inaccurate picture of the conditions at some of Canada's meat and poultry plants where sanitation problems persisted, an American audit has found.
A recently released audit by the United States Department of Agriculture's inspection service revealed several areas of "systemic concern," though the report notes the Canadian agency has taken significant steps to correct problems.
The audit, which looked at 23 of the 455 establishments certified to export to the U.S. between Aug. 25 and Oct. 1, 2009, identified weaknesses particularly in the areas of sanitation, oversight and record keeping.
A review of manuals and procedures at the food inspection agency's administrative offices found acceptable controls for sanitation, but auditors found a different story at some plants.
"The actual conditions of the establishment visits were often not entirely consistent with the corresponding documentation," the report says.
Among the sanitation issues identified in the report were: not consistently identifying contaminated product and inconsistently verifying plants were taking adequate corrective actions to problems.
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, whose ministry is responsible for the agency, responded with a statement emailed to The Canadian Press on Monday.
"This audit is from a year ago and in that time our government has invested an additional $75 million to improve food safety and are hiring 170 new inspectors," Ritz said in the statement provided by a spokeswoman.
The head of the food inspection agency's meat programs division said Canadian inspectors found similar problems when they visited American meat plants.
Richard Arsenault said the U.S. auditors interpreted the requirements differently from Canadian authorities.
"Essentially, I think what we had was a situation where the facilities were generally, with very small issues, in full compliance with our requirements," Arsenault said in an interview Monday.
He said the U.S. assessment was that some things were not "appropriate" for a plant eligible for the United States.
"At that point, we basically had to concur with the decision," he said. "It was their review, not ours."
Steps were taken "to keep the rest of the market eligible for access to that country," he added.
The report's findings didn't come as a shock to the head of the union that represents federal meat inspectors.
"In a nutshell, no, of course it doesn't surprise me," Bob Kingston said.
"I mean, they are certainly not at a level yet where they could be expected to do everything that they're supposed to do. They don't have the people or resources in place to allow them to."
During the course of the audit, three of those 23 facilities were removed from the list of establishments approved to export to the U.S. because of basic sanitation issues or questionable process controls.
Three more facilities were issued warnings for conditions that did not pose an imminent threat to public health, but would lead to decertification if problems weren't corrected in 30 days.
In his email, Ritz said: "Last year, CFIA acted quickly to correct the issues raised and all plants noted in the report have regained the ability to export."
The American food safety body expects facilities to get delisted in the course of the CFIA's everyday responsibilities, but when problems at all these facilities come to light during an audit, it carries a "different significance," the report says.
"It calls into question why the conditions within a particular establishment have gone unaddressed and resulted in an enforcement action during the audit," the report says.
Many of the deficiencies highlighted, including sanitation and oversight, had been identified in previous audits.
"The number of upper-level enforcement actions taken during the course of audit is an indication of the system weakness to maintain the country's standards in a broad and consistent fashion, but are not indicative of a systemic failure," the report says.
After the audit was completed, the food inspection agency was given a chance to respond, and it listed a number of measures it said it is taking to correct the issues raised. The agency implemented more inspection visits to the U.S.-certified plants, gave inspectors extra training and updated manuals, the report says.
"If these actions are effectively implemented, the system weaknesses should be remedied," the report says.
The beginnings of a deadly outbreak of listeriosis two years ago were traced to sanitation problems with the meat-slicing equipment at a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto.
Twenty-two people died and hundreds more fell ill after eating contaminated deli meats from the company's Bartor Road facility. Maple Leaf apologized and agreed to pay up to $27 million to settle class-action lawsuits.
The company has since instituted more rigorous testing for Listeria in plants producing ready-to-eat meat.
During the plant's closure, the company invited television crews to film workers in what looked like hazardous-material suits dismantling and sterilizing equipment, while the other areas were coated in a foamy disinfectant. Hundreds of employees also spent hours in training sessions learning about cleanliness and the bacteria.
But even a top-to-bottom scrubbing after the listeriosis outbreak apparently didn't fully cleanse the Maple Leaf Foods plant of mould, slime and meat debris.
The Canadian Press reported last year that inspectors documented a troubling lack of hygiene at the company's Toronto facility just weeks after it reopened last year from a temporary shutdown for cleaning.
At the time, Maple Leaf said inspectors were looking more carefully at the plant after the listeriosis crisis, so naturally they found more problems.
And the company's chief food-safety officer, Dr. Randy Huffman, said Maple Leaf put in place more than 200 new standard operating procedures after the listeriosis outbreak, but it took workers time to learn them. He said that through that learning process the company has continuously improved its approach to food safety.
The outbreak prompted the federal government to strengthen its food-safety protocols. It's now mandatory for companies to report all positive Listeria findings to the food inspection agency, and facilities have to test more often for possible contamination.