Winnipeg: Health inspectors need to crack down on dodgy diners

About a month ago Winnipeg citizens were horrified when a couple dining at Sizzling Wok found a dead baby rodent in their stir-fry. Over the weekend the Winnipeg Free Press reported that restaurant inspections in the city are too slack.

In the last four years, five city eateries accounted for close to 20 per cent of all health-code violations, ranging from rodent infestations to serving chicken that wasn’t inspected or registered under the Meat Inspection Act. Two had mice infestations, one stored toxic material near food and four were temporarily shut down due to unsanitary conditions. Today, four of the five are still in business.

City inspectors can suspend a restaurant’s business licence without warning if repeat violations aren’t corrected and they deem it a danger to public health. To date, that power has never been used. Officials admit their standard arsenal of tools doesn’t always work, and that they may need to be more forceful to crack down on repeat offenders.

Peter Parys, Winnipeg’s manager of community bylaw enforcement services, said,

"You’re going to find a certain percentage of people that are totally unco-operative. I think in some cases an argument (could be made) we need to take a more aggressive approach."

Most of Winnipeg’s 8,000-plus eateries are inspected once a year. Health inspectors rely on the element of surprise and typically walk in unannounced so businesses don’t have time to clean up…While the majority of local eateries get a clean bill of health, there are dozens considered "high-risk" that don’t.

Although fines help increase compliance, some places simply don’t abide by the rules…officials say the real problem is getting through to people who aren’t getting the message about the fallout from breaking the health code.

Brian Rivet, a senior environmental health officer with the city, said,

"I think now with our education program there’s less and less of them who don’t know. They’re busy and they take shortcuts."

Shortcuts can have disastrous consequences.

In 2006, 40 people fell ill with a dangerous strain of E. coli after eating contaminated meat sold at four different restaurants. More than half of the cases were linked to meat sold by the Dutch Meat Market and four local hamburger joints that bought the meat and were busted for poor food-handling practices that may have contributed to people getting sick.

Stomachs across the city churned earlier this year when news surfaced that a local couple found dead baby rodents in a stir-fry they purchased from Sizzling Wok in St. Vital. Photos of the loonie-sized mice were posted online, and even veteran inspectors such as Leblanc admit they were extreme and disturbing.

Inspection reports show Sizzling Wok had been reviewed eight months earlier but no major problems were found.

Although public disclosure systems like Scores on Doors in the UK or letter grades in L.A. (see Jessica Simpson, left) may not necessarily decrease the incidence of foodborne illness, they can enhance consumer confidence in the safety of food prepared at restaurants. In Winnipeg Diner’s Digest is available online, an online document listing recent establishment closures; however little inspection details are given and it may not always be up-to-date.