TORONTO - Ontario needs to do a better job of following up on food-safety violations in provincially regulated slaughter houses and meat-processing plants, Auditor General Jim McCarter warned Monday in his annual report.

About half of all abattoirs and free-standing meat processors didn't comply with at least 10 per cent of the provincial standards that were audited, the report found.

Some plants were in violation of more than 30 per cent of the standards, many of which were repeat violations, it added.

As of March, only 80 of the 290 licensed free-standing meat processors were audited and rated by the province, the report said.

McCarter noted in his report that the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs hasn't adjusted its inspections since a 2006 study found a high prevalence rate for E. coli and coliforms on equipment and food-contact surfaces among 48 Toronto-area meat processors.

There are also weaknesses in how the province inspects the 120 dairy processing plants and 390 distributors that were operating in Ontario last year, the report warned.

Tests conducted on processed milk and cheese products suggest that a number of plants in the province might have sanitation problems, it said.

More than half of the 19 plants whose milk was tested last year by the ministry exceeded bacterial limits, but additional tests determined there was no immediate health threat, the report noted.

After testing cheese products from 13 of 56 plants in the province, four plants were found to have bacterial levels that exceeded test limits, although there was no immediate health risk, it said.

The province is responsible for licensing dairy processing plants and milk distributors, but only inspects about 30 of the 120 dairy plants in Ontario. The rest are inspected by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

But the auditor found that the province renewed licences in some cases before an inspection had even been completed, or before receiving an inspection report from the CFIA.

His report also found other gaps in the inspection system. Inspection results aren't compiled, which makes it difficult to get a better picture of the overall level of compliance, it noted.

Some plants were examined more thoroughly than others because the extent of the inspections was left to the individual inspector, it added.

While there were 387 active licences for milk distribution, only 21 establishments were inspected by the ministry last year, the report said.

In some cases, plants and distributors that required a follow-up to find out if they fixed their problems either never got the inspection or didn't get one promptly, the report said.

Some of the problems were noted by the auditor general in 2001. The ministry had promised to review its milk distribution program, but the study was never done, McCarter's report said.

The Dairy Farmers of Ontario were handed the responsibility for enforcing some safety provisions for cow's milk -- including collecting samples for lab testing -- but the ministry hasn't reviewed its performance in six years, it said.

McCarter is also recommending that the province strengthen legislation to give it more authority to enforce food safety for fruits and vegetables.

Currently, the province doesn't have the authority to do much more than educate producers on how to prevent the high levels of chemicals and contaminants that can be found on produce, he said.