Audit flags risk of 'food-related health event' in Canadian prisons

A new federal audit raises quality and safety concerns regarding Canada's prison food system, warning of widespread waste, substandard meal portions and the risk of a "food-related health event" behind the wire.

Correctional Service Canada criticized after moving to centralized 'cook-chill' meal production process

A federal audit of Canada's correctional institutions found major problems with their food services. (Shutterstock)

A new federal audit raises quality and safety concerns regarding Canada's prison food system, warning of food being wasted, substandard meal portions and the risk of a "food-related health event" behind the wire.

Federal government auditors scrutinized kitchens and food preparation rules in federal institutions that feed more than 14,000 inmates daily. It found that the Correctional Service Canada (CSC) is failing to meet Canada Food Guide's nutrition guidelines, to provide quality assurance oversight and to take consistent steps to avoid contamination.

"By not meeting these required standards for food production, there is a risk that CSC could have a food-related health event at an individual site," the audit warns.

The issue of food quality has been a source of tension — and even violence — since CSC moved to a centralized production and "cook-chill" system in 2014. Auditors noted a "culture of resistance to change" with the Food Services Modernization Initiative, along with significant oversight and compliance failures.

The audit cites hygiene breaches by kitchen staff, including instances when hairnets weren't worn.

Muscling, bullying and extortion for food is a common and pervasive problem, especially at higher security institutions.- Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger

The audit also reported problems with the inspection of food deliveries. CSC policy calls for checks on quality and quantity and requires that goods be sent back if perishables aren't fresh, canned foods are leaking or frozen foods are thawing.

The audit, however, found that three of the 12 sites visited did not carry out such inspections or count the goods. At one site, they discovered metal shards embedded in a large sack of brown sugar after it hit the side of the delivery truck.

Weak controls, wasted resources

"Weak controls in the reception of goods can lead to potential health and safety issues and wasted resources if goods are spoiled or otherwise unusable and need to be disposed of," the audit says.

Auditors also found expired or spoiled goods in storage rooms, fridges and freezers, despite a "first in, first out" inventory rule.

The Correctional Service of Canada provides 2,600 calories worth of food a day at a cost of $5.41 per prisoner per day. (Office of the Correctional Investigator)

Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger wrote to CSC Commissioner Anne Kelly to raise concerns about both the scope of the audit and the persistent problems with prison food quality.

In his letter, obtained through Access to Information, Zinger warns of health and security concerns associated with small portions and bad food.

"Food has gradually become another highly valued and dangerous commodity in the parallel or underground inmate economies," he wrote. "Muscling, bullying and extortion for food is a common and pervasive problem, especially at higher security institutions."

Deadly riot over food

A deadly Saskatchewan riot in 2016 linked food shortages, poor meal quality and inadequate portion sizes to an organized protest and inmate strike that ended in violence. One person was killed and eight others injured.

But while the audit flagged problems with too-small portions, it also found a major problem with waste.

In one location, all leftovers — about one third of total production — were "needlessly thrown away" at the end of the meal, the audit said.

Zinger, who has been raising concerns about chronic food service problems at CSC, said the audit falls short on various fronts. He urged CSC to order a comprehensive, external review.

Healthier, cheaper food possible

Zinger said research has shown that serving wholesome and appetizing food in institutionalized settings is cheaper, healthier and safer in the long run.

"Scrimping on food may not be providing value for money or be worth the problems or exposure to risk that a single large-scale food safety event would entail," he warned.

Zinger also noted that the audit was based on the old food guide and questioned how CSC will comply with the new guide's emphasis on plant-based protein, fresh fruits and vegetables.

"The long-term health consequences of serving more highly processed meals to a population that is known to have higher incidence of diet-related illness and disease, such as obesity, hypertension and diabetes, was not acknowledged or probed in this audit," he said.

The audit also found CSC did not always respect religious dietary requirements for certain inmates.

CSC says it is moving to adopt new policies, expected this fall, that will address gaps in previous policies.

Spokeswoman Christina Tricomi said CSC is committed to meeting with food services staff to review their roles and responsibilities.

"CSC will make sure there is more oversight and that an effective monitoring program is implemented to ensure compliance of policies. This will help achieve the overall desired outcomes," she said.