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Documents that show the provincial government has known for more than a year about serious problems with its meat-inspection system left Premier Ernie Eves dodging yet another food-safety scandal yesterday.

An April, 2002, report prepared by the Agriculture Ministry says meat inspections are outdated and inadequate. It contained results of an inventory of free-standing meat plants which found "the majority of the plants had deficiencies in sanitation, pest control, and food-safety practices."

Mr. Eves denied that the system has any flaws. He had never seen the document before it appeared in yesterday's Toronto Star, he said, describing it as a draft cabinet submission that has not yet been tabled.

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"There is nothing wrong with the system. The meat is safe," Mr. Eves said during a campaign stop in Stoney Creek, Ont.

But some of the meat is not safe, according to the documents, which estimate that about 13 deaths and over 60,000 cases of illness in Ontario were caused by contaminated poultry, beef, pork and other meats in 2002.

The number of food-poisoning cases is growing, the report said, and the current system "is unable to respond to current issues."

Meat safety is a touchy subject for the Conservatives. The government was criticized by the provincial auditor two years ago after it fired most meat inspectors and gave the job to part-time contractors.

Last month, health authorities ordered a recall of all meat processed by a plant near Aylmer, Ont., after allegations surfaced that it was processing animals that were already dead. Investigators are still examining whether the Aylmer meat caused stomach illnesses in 50 people.

Confronted about the 2002 documents, Mr. Eves offered a rambling response in which his voice occasionally faltered. He alluded to standards that the province has already established and said the documents were prepared as part of an effort to enforce them.

"We do have a very good system that protects the public in this province," Mr. Eves said. "Not to say that it can't be made better, that it shouldn't be made better. We took the initiative back and started in 1998, and worked through to legislation in 2001 and regulations to implement that legislation of which this policy recommendation, coming from various ministries into the Ministry of Agriculture and Food. Eventually we will get there."

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Such analysis from bureaucrats is not unusual, Mr. Eves added: "I want to emphasize that every single day, of every single week, of every single year, in government, there are documents like this one in every single ministry - several times over, if you take a large ministry like health or education," Mr. Eves said, chuckling. "There might be 10, 20 of these documents every day."

The meat scandal fits a pattern of Conservative service cuts that risk lives, NDP Leader Howard Hampton said in a news release.

"Ernie Eves took this report and hid it in a drawer," Mr. Hampton said. "By doing nothing, he put lives at risk. He rolled the dice and, again, gambled with people's lives."

Fresh from signing a pledge not to raise taxes, Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty said yesterday that the new revelations about tainted meat paint a frightening picture of public safety in the province.

"It's really bad news for the people of Ontario, and it emphasizes the need for Ontario voters to carefully consider their choices in this election," Mr. McGuinty said on a campaign stop in Toronto. A day earlier his buses had visited three areas of the province where people have been threatened by a compromised environment, including Walkerton, where seven people died three years ago after drinking tainted water.

In all of those instances, the Liberals argue that the Conservatives ignored their responsibility to protect public health.

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"We've seen this movie before," Mr. McGuinty said. "We've had a document that has been submitted to the Tory caucus on the matter of cuts to the Ministry of the Environment. And that document specifically provided that those cuts would endanger public health."

Those cuts were ultimately cited as directly contributing to the Walkerton disaster.

In that community, the people "paid the highest price for this government's failure to uphold public safety," he said.

"And now we learn that they have failed to learn from those painful lessons, another cabinet document that specifically described what's going to happen if we fail to take the steps to protect public safety."

The Liberals, said Mr. McGuinty, will invest in those kinds of services that people count on, "like upholding public safety, like making sure you've got enough meat inspectors on the job." With a report from Gloria Galloway

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