New report highlights years of mismanagement within N.L.'s food inspection system
A scathing report from Newfoundland and Labrador's auditor general shows the provincial government has mismanaged food inspection and licensing practices for years, which could have put public health at risk.
The report released Wednesday was created to determine whether the two government departments that manage food inspections, the Department of Health and the Department of Digital Government and Service N.L., have been effective in their management of the program.
"We found that many policies and procedures were significantly outdated, and there were no processes in place to assess whether the program was operating according to health policy," Auditor General Denise Hanrahan said Wednesday.
The report, which includes findings from April 2019 to the end of 2021, shows the department didn't perform the required number of inspections annually and miscalculated inspection scores to make businesses score better than they did.
It also highlights a lack of communication and punctual report sharing between the two departments.
The two departments established a memorandum of understanding in 1995 for the responsibility of performing food inspections and licensing. The MOU is supposed to be updated yearly, but Hanrahan says it hasn't been updated since 1999.
"You need that oversight. You need the reporting back. You need to know that the work that you expect to get done is getting done. And in this particular case, we're talking about public health," she said.
The report shows the two departments often don't carry out the minimum number of required inspections annually, and that inspections happen less frequently than required.
Hanrahan said 16 per cent of the minimum required inspections were not completed during the 2019-2020 fiscal year, which translates to over 1,000 inspections. The report also found that five of the 60 premises sampled for the report operated for a period of time without a valid license.
"Due to the lack of communication between departments, Health and Community Services was often unaware that a food premise had not been inspected, or that critical hazards could have gone undetected or unaddressed," she said.
The lack of routine inspections is especially felt in rural areas, she said, where businesses can go years without an inspection in some cases. The audit uncovered one Labrador business that hadn't been inspected since 2014.
When inspections were done, the report said, the auditor general found the calculation of inspections statistics was sometimes incorrect — which led to premises scoring better than they should have on the inspection.
Proper monitoring was absent
The report also dives into how inspections and issued licenses are monitored, citing missing audits, a lack of consistent record keeping and a severe lack of communication between the two departments.
"We found that Digital Government and Service N.L. did not conduct audits accordingly, with almost 91 per cent of the required audits not completed," the report said.
"Only seven of 77 — nine per cent — of the required quarterly file audits were completed during our scope period."
Other instances show the department failed to keep complete and consistent records, including physical documentation and records pertaining to complaints.
The two departments also failed to stay up to date when it came to reporting, according to the report. Annual reports for 2020 and 2021 from Digital Government were not provided to the Department of Health until May 2022, the report said.
The report comes with five recommendations Hanrahan says both departments have agreed to, including establishing new processes to ensure effective oversight and monitoring, filing reports in a timely manner, updating the MOU more frequently and making sure inspections and licensing are carried out in accordance with legislation.
"This audit for me is a good audit. It shows an opportunity for the departments to improve their transparency and program delivery, and it very much is about accountability," she said.
CBC News contacted the Department of Digital Government and Service N.L. for comment, but officials declined to speak until they review the report.