We’ve always provided restaurant inspection results in Guelph; if you book meal 60 days in advance

In July 2004, I had a couple of students conduct an experiment: with restaurant inspection disclosure systems well-established in neighboring Toronto, Halton  and Waterloo (they’re all in Ontario, in Canada, land of rejoicing hockey fans), see if you can find out from the Guelph health folks the grade on any restaurant you like.

The response was this: a consumer who wants to view an inspector’s report must file a written request with the Board of Health and await a barf.o.meter_.dec_.12-216x300response in the mail.

Not of much use when going out for dinner, like we did last night on the Island. And I remember the students remarking about how denigrating the person on the phone was.

So when Shawn Zentner of the Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health Unit posted that “We’ve always made food inspection results available to the public (via phone or hard-copy request)” I had a chuckle.

I then threw up a little bit in my mouth.

Zentner  also insisted that “local/municipal by-laws mean we can’t force restaurant owners to post signs. However, we’re encouraging owners to post the window clings, cards, and signs we provide.”

Then change the law.

If thousands of other communities can do it, so can Guelph, the self-proclaimed capital of all things food in Canada (it’s not).

Steven Petric of the Guelph Mercury gets it right when he notes that between 2004 and 2005, both the Canadian Newspaper Association and the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph (that’s what we used to call ourselves, until others started appropriating the name) called out the Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health unit on its lacklustre system for the public to access restaurant inspection reports. Now, Guelph is trying to catch up to other regions.

The ‘Check before you choose’ program was quietly announced via a posting on the health unit’s website over the Christmas break. This online portal is supposed to provide restaurant-goers with access to a database list of the most recent and past infractions and allow diners to do some of their own research of these results before going out to eat. Previously, anyone who wanted to view an inspector’s report had to file a written request and wait for a response four to six weeks later in the mail.

It is more likely not many people will have the patience or foresight to search through an online database before going out to a restaurant establishment. Just in 2011 alone, the local health unit inspected 1,365 locations issuing only one ticket. However, 1,204 of the inspections required a followup. This is very concerning.

Other cities have taken things a step further in informing the public of inspection results.

In Toronto, the DineSafe program, which has been widely praised since it was introduced in 2001, came about following media and public concern about how difficult it was to access inspection information.

Along with the normal food safety notices, the Toronto system has an extensive website that allows the public to track the results of qr_code_rest_inspection_grade(5)inspections through a user-friendly colour coding system of green for pass, yellow for conditional pass, and red for closure.

The Toronto system has been adopted by health departments in the United States, the United Kingdom and other areas of Canada, such as Brampton. Health officials routinely travel to Toronto from Australia, Japan and China to study the model for their own cities.

Toronto’s health department even received an international award in 2011 for its work.

So while other cities have created modified versions of the Toronto model since about 2005, it looks as though the program being presented for our area is going for a minimalist approach.

Don’t get me wrong, having these reports easily accessible online has been a long time coming. However, it feels as though we are getting the short end of the stick and a watered-downed system. The health unit’s own 2012 public survey on this matter pointed out that people wanted results posted at food establishments. I don’t think they meant having a voluntary sticker in their window telling you to visit a website to find out if it’s OK to dine here as the system they wanted.

The colour-coded window display system presented and successfully used by Toronto and now other cities is a great model and should not have been dismissed outright.

Filion, K. and Powell, D.A. 2009. The use of restaurant inspection disclosure systems as a means of communicating food safety information. Journal of Foodservice 20: 287-297.
?? The World Health Organization estimates that up to 30% of individuals in developed countries become ill from food or water each year. Up to 70% of these illnesses are estimated to be linked to food prepared at foodservice establishments. Consumer confidence in the safety of food prepared in restaurants is fragile, varying significantly from year to year, with many consumers attributing foodborne illness to foodservice. One of the key drivers of restaurant choice is consumer perception of the hygiene of a restaurant. Restaurant hygiene information is something consumers desire, and when available, may use to make dining decisions.

Filion, K. and Powell, D.A. 2011. Designing a national restaurant inspection disclosure system for New Zealand?. ?Journal of Food Protection 74(11): 1869-1874
? The World Health Organization estimates that up to 30% of individuals in developed countries become ill from contaminated food or water each year, and up to 70% of these illnesses are estimated to be linked to food service facilities. The aim of restaurant inspections is to reduce foodborne outbreaks and enhance consumer confidence in food service. Inspection disclosure systems have been developed as tools for consumers and incentives for food service operators. Disclosure systems are common in developed countries but are inconsistently used, possibly

because previous research has not determined the best format for disclosing inspection results. This study was conducted to develop a consistent, compelling, and trusted inspection disclosure system for New Zealand. Existing international and national disclosure systems were evaluated. Two cards, a letter grade (A, B, C, or F) and a gauge (speedometer style), were designed to represent a restaurant’s inspection result and were provided to 371 premises in six districts for 3 months. Operators (n = 269) and consumers (n = 991) were interviewed to determine which card design best communicated inspection results. Less than half of the consumers noticed cards before entering the premises; these data indicated that the letter attracted more initial attention (78%) than the gauge (45%). Fifty-eight percent (38) of the operators with the gauge preferred the letter; and 79% (47) of the operators with letter preferred the letter. Eighty-eight percent (133) of the consumers in gauge districts preferred the letter, and 72% (161) of those in letter districts preferring the letter. Based on these data, the letter method was recommended for a national disclosure system for New Zealand.