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Niagara InfoDine turns 10 by Karena Walter, July 28, 2017

Sometimes, it’s not what’s on the menu at Niagara’s 2,700 eateries that’s of real interest. It’s what’s happening behind the scenes.

For the past 10 years, Niagara Region’s public health inspectors have been taking diners into the kitchens of their favourite restaurants through the online site Niagara InfoDine.

The website posts inspection reports from the big chains like Costco and McDonalds to the Mom and Pop restaurants to the public school snack programs. Even the Niagara Detention Centre’s kitchen is documented.

“Our goal is to ensure operator success and safe food for Niagara folks and the 25 million visitors that want to come back again,” said Siobhan Kearns, Niagara Region’s director of environmental health.

Best case scenario? No issues reported and a green checkmark awarded, like for the Starbucks on Scott Street in St. Catharines in April.

Worst case? The closure of an Eastchester Avenue premises this past Wednesday that had a dozen infractions, including no potable water.

The Region started posting its health inspections online in 2007 when it had the technology to do so, making it easier for potential patrons to access the information. And they do.

Since January 2016, the InfoDine site has had more than 49,100 visits with over 199,700 page views.

Kearns said there are spikes in visitations, such as in February 2016 when there was a listeria outbreak across the province that likely peaked people’s curiosity about what was happening at their own local eateries.

Social media posts about restaurants also prompt bumps.

Kearns said what she likes about Niagara InfoDine is that people can read a restaurant’s inspections for a year and see patterns emerge. It gives them a better insight into what’s going on at a location than a green or red sign posted in a window, a practice Niagara hasn’t adopted.

“It’s a year’s history on the site as opposed to a snapshot in time,” she said. “Generally what you find is there are chronic offenders.”

While Niagara InfoDine is a powerful tool for those eating out, Kearns said the site acts as positive reinforcement to comply for restaurants.

“They don’t want their inspection reports up there with red Xs on them.”

Sixteen of the region’s 35 public health inspectors are part of the food safety program. They do 8,500 eatery inspections a year, usually by surprise.

Kearns said they appreciate it’s a restaurant’s livelihood and try not to go at the busiest times, but inspectors do have to see kitchens in action.

The number of times an establishment is inspected is based on its classification. Low-risk variety stores and gas stations with pre-packaged foods are checked once a year, while moderate risk eateries that prepare the same foods over and over like fast-food outlets are checked twice. High-risk restaurants that constantly change up their menus and preparation methods are checked three times.

Health inspectors will visit places more often than the prescribed number if the eatery has had problems in the past and requires special attention.

Other inspections are complaint-driven or the result of a food-borne illness that the health department narrows down to a restaurant.

The department tries to do education first, explaining to the owner, for instance, why they have to keep food at a certain temperature.

“There’s a reason behind everything. We always try to educate first and enforce second,” said Niagara Region public health inspector Brandon Krupa.

Inspectors are armed with a checklist of 40 bullets and sub-bullets, looking for critical infractions which have a direct impact on people’s health and non-critical ones, such as broken floor or ceiling tiles.

Inspection reports are completed on a tablet, printed for the operator and uploaded fairly quickly to InfoDine, usually within 48 hours.

Krupa said the most common problems tend to be general cleanliness or temperatures in fridges in the summer.

But he said since mandatory food handler training brought in through a regional bylaw a few years ago, things are looking better.

Restaurants must have one person with a food handler certificate on at all times. The region offers the handler certification courses and gives one-on-one lessons to people for whom English is a second language.

“The level of food safety knowledge in restaurants has increased,” Krupa said.

The department would love if it operators would come to them for tips such as kitchen design before they open their doors to avoid potential infractions that have to be rectified. St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and Welland require licences and inspections prior to opening but not all Niagara municipalities do.

“We want to help operators. We want to be on the ground floor,” Kearns said. “Our role is wanting them to be successful.”

Restaurant closures are extreme. They generally come after several weeks of the department working with an operator and not receiving compliance.

It’s rare to issue a sudden closure, unless there’s an extraordinary event like a sewer backup, fire or rodent infestation.

A check of InfoDine Friday found five closures in the last six months in St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and Welland. They included one Lundy’s Lane restaurant that was closed twice in July for a rodent infestation.

Most of the restaurants opened within days of correcting the problems.

Kearns said disclosure and transparency are key.

“We’re quite conscious of the fact that Niagara Region has twenty to twenty-five thousand visitors a year and we want to keep everybody safe,” she said.

“We’re very diligent.”