Health unit should beef up its eatery inspections menu

There is a Seinfeld reference for nearly everything.

The episode where Jerry refuses to eat pizza after he sees the cook leave the bathroom without washing his hands is particularly memorable.

So when it comes to restaurants, we all have our horror stories.

Between 2004 and 2005, both the Canadian Newspaper Association and the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph 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.

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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.

So, while many people, including myself, are happy to see this long-awaited information become more easily accessible, it does raise the question, does putting the information only online go far enough?

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 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.

It also does not seem to be very user-friendly to the casual diner, such as someone who may drop into a restaurant in between shopping or errands. Fiddling around with your cellphone while downtown, deep in winter, just to dig up an inspection report is definitely neither appealing nor appetizing.

I would have preferred seeing something more thorough than forcing diners to have to plan every outing by checking a website at home. Otherwise, diners will have to pay the fees associated to accessing internet on a mobile device in places lacking a free Wi-Fi environment.

While some operators are also worried the public may not understand inspection results, many other health units have gone to great lengths to launch education programs for the public, and in most cases have created very easy to understand pass/fail display systems.

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.

This article appeared in the Guelph Mercury’s Community Editorial Board by Steven Petric on January 4, 2013.

In the News:

Guelph eateries not obligated to post health inspection results

Restaurant food safety reporting needs review

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