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Investigation

Food safety

Inspectors averaged 2 hours a day inside listeria-infected plant

Records show 25 instances of 15-minute inspections

Last Updated: Thursday, June 11, 2009 | 2:38 PM ET

Federal inspectors spent an average of just under two hours a day at the meat plant at the centre of last summer's deadly listeriosis crisis in the months leading up to the outbreak of the food-borne illness, an analysis by CBC and the Toronto Star has found.

Slicer machines were disassembled to allow cleaning of internal components deep within the equipment in the wake of listeria crisis. Slicer machines were disassembled to allow cleaning of internal components deep within the equipment in the wake of listeria crisis. (Maple Leaf Foods Inc./Canadian Press)

At least 22 people died after eating meat infected with the Listeria monocytogenes bacteria processed at the Maple Leaf Foods facility on Bartor Road in Toronto's north end.

Analysis by CBC and the Toronto Star showed inspectors at the Bartor Road facility spent most of their time on administrative tasks and little time on inspections.

Records, which were obtained through an access to information request, also show that inspectors spent 15 minutes inside the plant on 25 days between the beginning of 2007 and end of August, 2008.

In 2007, the average length of time spent on daily inspections of the plant was around two hours. In the first half of 2008, it dropped to an average of an hour and 20 minutes.

But in August, at the height of the listeria crisis, inspectors were averaging five hours and nine minutes a day.

"If you're only averaging 100 minutes or less or more a day, you have to ask yourself how can the inspectors adequately do their job in a facility from a federal, regulatory point of view," Liberal agriculture critic Wayne Easter, told CBC News.

Easter called for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz to explain why inspectors were spending so little time in the plant.

Dedicated inspector needed: union

Asked by CBC News what an inspector can reasonably do in 15 minutes, Tom Graham, CFIA's national inspection manager, responded: "We do provide a daily presence in all our facilities. I'm not sure what was going on during that day."

When asked if he can imagine a task that can be accomplished in 15 minutes, Graham conceded, " Probably not, no."

The numbers didn't surprise Bob Kingston, president of the union that represents the federal meat inspectors. "Those numbers back up exactly what we've been saying from the beginning."

Kingston insists an inspector's entire 7.5-hour shift should be devoted to a major facility such as the Bartor Road plant.

But instead, the daytime inspector who checks the Toronto plant has his duties divided among six other facilities while the night-time inspector oversees 15 others.

Although CFIA officials have insisted that they had adequate staff to do the job properly at the Toronto facility, the agency has now posted a full-time inspector at the facility who is in place "at the moment."

But Kingston says he expects that inspector to be re-assigned to other facilities once the focus shifts from the Maple Leaf Foods plant.

'Grossly resource-starved'

Food safety critics have blamed the deadly listeria outbreak on insufficient numbers of inspectors.

Had there been a more vigorous inspection at the Bartor Road plant, they argue, the inspectors may have been able to spot the problem sooner and, in the process, saved lives.

Spending as little as 15 minutes a day, they say, is an example of a serious lack of personnel.

At a parliamentary committee hearing examining the listeria crisis, CFIA food processing supervisor Don Irons testified last month that before the listeria outbreak, "we were grossly resource-starved" on the floor.

When asked whether resources are now sufficient to carry out the agency's inspection regime, he replied, "To implement that 100 per cent, no, I do not."

In the wake of the listeria crisis, the agriculture minister last August vowed to have another 58 people on the front lines by March 2009.

But a CFIA memo tabled in the committee earlier this week revealed that of 57 full-time employees hired, none are "dedicated to meat inspection."

Agriculture ministry spokesperson Meagan Murdoch says that "there is no discrepancy" between what the minister promised and the memo, but refused to elaborate.

The agency insists that it has enough employees to fulfil its mandate. A final report is expected from the parliamentary committee studying the crisis by the end of June.

Time spent inspecting on plant floor

Conflicting information has also emerged about the time inspectors spend on the plant floor.

In 2005, the agency downloaded more responsibility for food safety on the industry and began requiring that companies keep detailed records on all facets of their operations.

CFIA and the agriculture minister say inspectors spend half their time reviewing company paperwork and the other half on the plant floor, visually inspecting production lines and talking with staff about troubles.

The CFIA's Graham insisted inspectors spent half their time inspecting facilities, and predicted the percentage will rise as inspectors become more familiar with the system.

In testimony before the parliamentary committee on Monday, Cameron Prince, CFIA's vice-president of operations, was more equivocal, calling the 50 per cent calculation "a global figure" and admitted it can vary on a daily basis, plant to plant.

Though the union concedes that the CFIA has taken important steps to improve food safety, such as requiring companies to test for listeria and report results to agency, the union president says staff shortages are still an issue.

Kingston says that if a similar analysis were conducted of the time spent at many plants across the country, the numbers would likely be similar to those uncovered at the Bartor Road facility.

While the inspection system appears valid on paper, there's not enough staff to make it work, he says.

"And until they fix that problem, they're gambling. And I think gambling in a reckless way," said Kingston.

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