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Inspectors keep eyes on eateries

PROTECTING YOUR STOMACH: York Region's health inspectors examine restaurants, coffee shops and convenience stores, anywhere that handles food, to ensure food safety standards are adhered to.

A small army of health inspectors patrol York Region, working to ensure diners walk out of local eateries with a settled stomach.

And since most patrons rarely have occasion to think of these inspectors, it must mean they are doing the job well.

It’s a hefty responsibility, and the 11 inspectors assigned to Vaughan do it by enforcing the provincial Health Protection and Promotion Act and its related regulations, most significantly Food Premises Regulation 562.

In the first 11 months of 2007, those inspectors conducted a stomach-churning 4,512 routine inspections, issuing 46 charges and 11 closure orders.

Not everyone on the business end of a provincial offence notice reacts cordially, they will tell you.

“Sometimes there is confrontation,” says Judy Hope, York Region’s manager of food safety, disclosure and enforcement. “Sometimes you have to have that thick skin.”

But not very often, she added, and not often enough to scare off well-intentioned inspectors like her.

“I got into it because of the fact that it (requires) a science background,” Hope said. “It’s health, it’s from a prevention perspective and we do three high-level components of the job: educate, enforce and promote.”

The job, actually, is a year-long, multi-faceted process.

The first step is the determination of an establishment’s level of risk. If a place that handles and sells food — restaurant, coffee shop or convenience store — is assessed as high risk, inspectors will make three unannounced visits a year. A medium-risk vendor will get two surprise inspections, while a foodmonger of the lowest risk will have just one.

That schedule changes, Hope explained, if a complaint comes in. Inspectors aim to answer complaints within 24 hours.

Once on scene, inspectors cast an inquisitive eye on food safety behaviours and areas of possible cross-contamination, Hope said.

“So we’re looking at temperature control of foods,” she said. “We look at personal hygiene of the operators.

“Are they washing their hands? Are they separating raw meats and poultry and seafood from ready to eat foods, such as salads, puddings, other desert items?

“Those are what we call items critical to food safety. Abuse of those particular items can increase the risk of someone contracting a food-borne illness because risky behaviours increase the risk.”

Beyond that lengthy list, inspectors also focus on other, “non-critical” areas, such as dishwashing, pest control, and garbage handling and removal — or “general housekeeping-type items,” as Hope calls them.

On the rare occasion inspectors find an infraction, they can hand out tickets and summonses, and can issue orders under the health protection act.

“They can … order an operator to do certain work or to close a premise,” Hope said. “If we see there is a health hazard, to mitigate that health hazard we ask them to do certain things with the order.

“If there’s an immediate health hazard to the public based on our risk assessment of the facility at the time of the inspection, then we have that authority to issue a closure order.”

Closures, though, are rare. Some are issued as a matter of course when a premise has suffered fire damage, Hope said, proving not all infractions are created equally.

An inspector often takes on the role of teacher, helping educate food handlers and vendors on the rules and regulations they should be abiding by, Hope said.

“If they don’t understand why they’re doing something wrong, then you can’t just put that heavy hand of the law in there,” she said. “For those slow learners, if you will, obviously then the enforcement aspect has to come into effect.

“Now, obviously, if there’s an immediate health hazard to the public, we would immediately close the premise. Education comes afterwards.”

Vaughan Today
Online: January 22, 2008 [link]