OMG, it’s still 2000: Canadian restaurant lobby says inspections are too complex for a single grade

Over 16 years after the Dirty Dining series of articles appeared in the Toronto Star, which led to the creation of the red-yellow-green restaurant inspection disclosure system, and the arguments haven’t changed: people want the information, good restaurants promote their good food safety scores, and the various lobbies think the system is silly.

2000.pop.cultureOn Jan. 8, 2001, Toronto’s DineSafe program was launched.s

But before the bylaw came into effect, the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association sought an injunction to prohibit the requirement to post the rating signs. I was retained to write a report on the merits and flaws of restaurant inspection disclosure and in particular the use of red-yellow-green. I wrote my report, it was submitted. The restaurant thingies lost the case and lost an appeal. I didn’t get to testify, and was disappointed that I had lost the opportunity to be in a courtroom where I wasn’t charged with something.

CBC Television’s Marketplace has decided to revisit the issue.

Canadians love to dine out, but information about how restaurants fare in health inspection reports is not always easy to find, a CBC Marketplace investigation reveals.

Canadian households spend an average of about $2,000 every year eating in restaurants, and almost two million of us contract foodborne illnesses while eating out, according to Health Canada.

The difficulty for restaurant patrons is that Canada has a patchwork of rules and regulations around how inspection reports are made public.

Some Canadian provinces or cities publish inspection results, but they’re not posted in restaurants where people can see them before ordering a meal. Others, such as Manitoba, do not publish reports, although after a Marketplace investigation the province agreed to make some available to the CBC. launched a public restaurant grading system more than a decade ago that posts the results where customers can see them, a move the city says contributed to a dramatic jump in compliance levels and a significant drop in foodborne illness. But an industry group has opposed attempts to introduce similar systems elsewhere, and few jurisdictions have adopted the city’s approach.

“Food safety is a very serious matter,” says Jim Chan, a retired public health inspector who spent 36 years with Toronto Public Health. “Anything that can affect my decision not to expose myself to a health hazard, any Canadian in the country should have the right to that information. As a citizen I should have that information to be able to make an informed decision.”

CBC Marketplace analyzed the data from almost 5,000 public health restaurant inspections in five Canadian cities — Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, Toronto and Ottawa — from a one year period.

Marketplace’s investigation, Canada’s Restaurant Secrets, ranks 13 chains based on their inspection records, including coffee shops, fast food restaurants and family dining establishments. The episode airs on Friday at 8:00 p.m. (8:30 p.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador) on CBC TV.

About half of foodborne illness in Canada happen from eating in restaurants, according to Health Canada.

A 2012 report by the Conference Board of Canada on improving food safety in Canada found that while restaurants are a major source of foodborne illness, inspections by themselves don’t go far enough to protect Canadians from getting sick.

“The restaurant inspection system is helpful; enforcement should be continued. But it is too sporadic, due to limited resources for inspections, to have a decisive impact on restaurants’ actual day-to-day food safety practices,” the report states.

While the report concludes that restaurants need to voluntarily adopt good practices, the group acknowledges that consumers need to be more aware of risks.

“Because half or more of food safety incidents are associated with restaurants and other food service establishments, consumer choices about where to eat can play a role in determining the level of risk to which they are exposed.”

In some cases, foodborne illness outbreaks traced back to restaurants have sickened dozens of people. In one 2008 case, an outbreak at a Harvey’s and Swiss Chalet restaurant in North Bay sickened more than 200 people, many with confirmed cases of E.coli.

“You have no choice but to trust the people who have prepared this for you,” one person who got sick in the outbreak told Marketplace. “Like, everything can look fantastic, but a couple days later you might [experience] a couple of very alarming symptoms.”

In another case in 2011, seven people were hospitalized after eating tuna at a Subway restaurant in the Vancouver airport.

The Toronto DineSafe program requires restaurants to visibly post the results of their latest inspection, which are easy for the public to understand (the colour coded grades are green for “pass,” yellow for “conditional pass” and red for “closed”).

“It’s very transparent,” Chan says. “The operator can actually see what the customer’s seeing, so if you don’t want customer to see something bad written on the report, make sure you correct it before the health inspector walks in.

“It’s good news for food safety,” he adds.

Since DineSafe launched in 2001, Toronto has seen a 30 per cent decline in the number of cases of foodborne illness, according to Toronto Public Health figures.

“It is not possible to conclude definitively that the increased public attention paid to food safety and the program enhancements implemented by TPH during this period were responsible for the reduction in cases,” a city report cautions, “but it is reasonable to suggest that these changes played a role.”

Toronto’s program has also become a model for programs around the world, from Sacramento to Shanghai. In 2011, DineSafe won the prestigious Samuel J. Crumbine Consumer Protection Award for excellence in food protection. Toronto is the only city outside of the U.S. to be awarded the prize.

According to Toronto Public Health, compliance rates have jumped dramatically since the program was implemented in 2001. When the program began, only 78.2 per cent of restaurants passed inspections; by the end of 2012, that number increased to 92.4 per cent.

Yet despite these successes, the restaurant industry continues to oppose public posting of inspection results.

Restaurants Canada, a group that advocates and lobbies for the industry, actively opposes broader implementation of grading programs like Toronto’s in other Canadian cities.

While regions near Toronto, including Peel, Halton, Hamilton and London, have also adopted publicly posted grading systems, diners elsewhere face a patchwork of public health reporting systems.

Some jurisdictions post inspection results online, but it’s up to consumers to look restaurants up individually and try to understand the results. Other places, such as Montreal, do not make inspection reports public.

When Montreal abandoned a plan to implement a similar system last year, Restaurants Canada — formerly called the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association (CRFA) — declared it “A win for members!” on its website.

The group refused to discuss on camera why it opposes public grading systems. In a statement, spokesperson Prasanthi Vasanthakumar wrote: “CRFA is opposed to the use of a ‘grade’ or ‘score’ to inform the public about the safety and hygiene of a restaurant because complex inspection findings based on subjective interpretations by individual inspectors cannot accurately or fairly be reduced to a single grade.”

That’s right: the group representing restaurants argues the people who spend money to have a meal are too dumb to know the complexities or restaurant inspection.

I don’t eat out much: must be too dumb.

New DineSafe iPhone app makes Toronto inspection data more accessible

A local developer named Matthew Ruten has, according to the Torontoist, found a way of making DineSafe information even more accessible: using the City’s open data, he’s created an iPhone app that lets users view the health-inspection histories of whatever restaurants happen to be near them.

The app, which is called “Dinesafe,” has been available in Apple’s app store for 99 cents since last week. It uses the iPhone’s GPS capabilities to spit out information on whatever restaurants happen to be closest.

The app displays restaurant names and addresses next to handy colour-coded graphics that let a user know, at a glance, how often each place has run afoul of inspectors. (Just as on the official DineSafe website, green is good, yellow not so good, and red the worst.) Flicking through the different restaurant profiles is more or less what reading Yelp would be like, if all Yelp reviews were written by bureaucrats.

Ruten wrote in an email, “The DineSafe signs that you see in the windows of restaurants don’t give you any idea how that restaurant has performed historically, so this app makes that information available.”

Cora Pizza in Toronto shut down due to rat infestation

Cora Pizza, (the One Stop Pizza Shop), apparently a favorite of University of Toronto students, was shut down Dec. 21/09 by Toronto Public Health due to a rodent infestation and to prevent gross unsanitary conditions.

Among the findings were a bucket that was used for pizza sauce showing obvious "signs of contamination with dirt and mold” and "dead rats and rat droppings in the kitchen."

blogTO reported that previous inspections in March and June of this year found a long list of infractions, including failure to:

* ensure food is not contaminated/adulterated;

* use proper procedure(s) to ensure food safety;

* provide hand washing supplies; and,

* provide adequate pest control.

The Toronto Star reported that  this week’s discovery of rodents at a Spadina Ave. pizza shop and a bakery outlet at a subway station has put the spotlight on Toronto’s restaurant inspection program.

The pass-fail card system, in which a red card closes the eatery until problems are corrected, was set back by last summer’s 39-day civic workers’ strike and the fight against the H1N1 flu pandemic.

Inspectors have since been working hard to catch up.

Nearly every week in Toronto, an establishment is closed down temporarily for food safety infractions. There were 41 closures this year and 46 in 2008.

Those statistics indicate the city, which has some 16,000 restaurants, food stores and bakeries, is staying on top of the serious cases, said associate medical officer of health Dr. Howard Shapiro, who notes they inspect "probably a few hundred places a day."

Food safety doesn’t just happen in English – so why aren’t restaurant inspection disclosure results available in other languages?

You’d figure that getting stuff translated into other languages would be a breeze, since I have an in with the modern languages department. But to do it in real-time is a bit messy.

Whether it’s a recall, an inspection report or a warning label, not everyone who eats in the U.S. is fluent in English. That’s why our food safety infosheets are now available weekly in French, Spanish and Portuguese.

Debbie Pacheco of blogTO writes today that the garbage disposal calendar Toronto distributes has sections in various languages, so why, then, is something as important as Toronto’s DineSafe guidelines only available in English?

One restaurateur told Pacheco he’s interpreted food preparation instructions for his staff before. "If you want that traditional food, it’s usually the older people who don’t necessarily speak English that cook it." He manages his kitchen and is certified in food handling. The city requires that someone with a food handling certificate supervise the kitchen at all times while it’s operating.

Mebrak, who’s been with Cleopatra restaurant for nine years, put it best. "It’s important people really understand how to handle food. It’s about safety for everyone."

Toronto takes on feds, province, issues own food safety agenda

I hear from local public health officials all the time, and the ones in Canada repeatedly say the single food inspection agency — known creatively as, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency – sucks.

The provincial regulators also suck.

So after years of taking it, the City of Toronto is once again trailblazing when it comes to serving the public – those who end up barfing from bad food – and has come up with its own idea of a food safety system that serves people.

Robert Cribb of the Toronto Star reports this morning that in a series of three reports to be presented to Toronto city council on Monday (available at, foodborne illness in Toronto is rampant and that in order to have fewer people barfing:

• Ontario should consider compensating food handlers who  are too sick to come to work due to "gastrointestinal illness;"
•  Ontario and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency should provide "full and timely disclosure of the food safety performance of all food premises
they inspect;” and,
• mandatory food handler training and certification, as recommended in the Justice Haines report of 2004 (that was my contribution).

A related story maintains that cases of foodborne illness began to fall almost immediately after Toronto began making restaurant inspection results public in 2001.

John Filion, chair of the city’s board of health, said it is the clearest evidence yet of the public health benefits of transparency.

Good for Toronto, especially when the feds and the province leave the locals out to dry on outbreaks of foodborne illness. In the Aug. 2008 outbreak of listeria linked to Maple Leaf deli meats, Toronto health types said they had plenty of evidence something was amiss in July, but CFIA and others refused to go public until Aug. 17, 2008. So with a federal listeria inquiry set to begin Monday, and Maple Leaf all focused on federal regulations, how are Maple Leaf executives going to handle pesky local health units like Toronto – the ones who actually do the work, uncover outbreaks and create their own headlines.

KATIE FILION: Rodents run amuck at Toronto Loblaw’s

A Loblaw’s Supermarket in Toronto, Canada, is closed following a customer complaint regarding a mouse inside the store.

Toronto Public Health (TPH) officials closed the store last night, and already Dinesafe, a website designed to disclose inspection results for food premises in the Toronto area, has updated its most recent inspection findings to include infractions discovered last night, such as:

•    failure to ensure food is not contaminated/adulterated;
•    failure to prevent rodent infestation; and,
•    failure to maintain hazardous food(s) at 4C (40F).

According to Dinesafe, the Dupont St. Loblaw’s has passed the last ten TPH inspections, dating back to April 2007.  But are restaurant inspections a good indicator of the quality of an establishment? Or simply a brief snapshot of a food premise at one point in time? And are web-based disclosure systems like Dinesafe the most effective way to communicate inspection results to consumers?

News reports like the ones in the Toronto Sun or Globe and Mail, websites like Dinesafe, and blogs like this or blogTO, get the information out there to consumers. What I am interested in is which of these methods is the most effective.