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Talking food safety in Guelph with manager of health protection 14 inspectors, 1,300 establishments, and 2,600 hundred inspections — it's all in a year's work for public healthby Jonathan Duncan

Jessica Morris is an 18-year veteran in the food inspection industry. She's currently a manager at Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health. - Jonathan Duncan, Torstar

Jessica Morris swears she still eats at restaurants. Even after 18 years in the food inspection industry, she says she's still "out all the time."

It's a wonder, considering some of the things she's seen.

Morris is the manager of health protection for Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health. While she isn't "on the front lines" anymore, her 10 years of working as a food inspector, first in Hamilton and later in Guelph, showed her some fairly gnarly stuff.

There was the time the bakery owner just started running when told she was there. Or the time an owner stood waving a knife the entire time she was talking to him, but she says her first closure was an especially memorable one.

She was inspecting a Chinese restaurant in Stoney Creek (now closed), and as soon as she walk in she realized "the place was a dump."

Normally, Morris would walk through restaurants noting infractions. But for this place, "there was no real list I could make." The whole place was an infraction.

She says there was rodent feces everywhere she looked, and as she rounded a corner into the dry-storage area, she came face to face with a mouse, sitting on top of a box.

"And I'm like, all right, that's it. . . . I'm shutting you down."

This was before the province mandated disclosure from public health. So Morris says the restaurant just told people they were closed for renovations.

These days, public health has to let people know when they close down a restaurant, and why.

Some municipalities, like Hamilton, hang either a red, yellow, or green sign in the window, letting people know the status of the restaurant. But Morris says Guelph is a little different. Instead, restaurants have to post a sign, showing people the "Check Before You Choose" website.

This is because municipalities using the red-yellow-green system all passed a bylaw to do so. Since WDGPH covers several different cities, it was easier to just direct people to the website, says Morris.

So what are inspectors looking for?

When asked, the first thing Morris mentions is temperature. She says making sure food is being stored at the right levels, and that all fridges and warmers are working, is paramount to food safety.

Pests are always an issue, she says, but just because a restaurant has them, doesn't mean it's unsanitary. Morris says they'll work with restaurants to help them manage any issues, and will keep an eye on any recurring problems. This doesn't mean they're O.K. with rodents running everywhere, cross-contaminating the food.

When an inspector first gets to a restaurant, Morris says they'll identify themselves. Then, she says she likes it if the first thing they do is wash their hands. This lets them lead by example, but it also gives them a chance to check out the hand-washing area.

"Do they have soap? Do they have paper towels? Why is the hand-washing station bone-dry after they've been doing prep all morning," she says.

Then, she likes to head into the "centre of it." That is, where food is being prepared. This gives her a chance to observe how people are working, and if they're practicing proper food safety.

Food storage is another area of concern. For instance, you can't store raw meat above vegetables or cooked meat, and food should be kept off the floor.

Bathrooms are done last, Morris says.

As inspectors go through the restaurants, they're listing infractions or noting things the business needs to fix. From there, they type their report into a computer, and load it directly to the website, where people can see it.

Inspectors have an escalating list of actions they can take in the interest of public health. If the infraction is small enough, they may just tell a place to have it fixed by the next time they come. If it's a more serious issue, they can schedule a follow-up the next day. If it's potentially deadly, then they can close place until work is complete.

Beyond Restaurants
While restaurants are a key responsibility for WDGPH, their responsibilities go beyond that.

The 14 inspectors employed by the organization oversee 1,300 food establishments in the region, and they conducted 2,600 walk-throughs in 2018, according to the WDGPH report for that year.

Along with this, they also looked at things like pools, cafes and supermarkets.

"We struggle a little bit with hotel pools, I'll be honest, getting compliance sometimes," Morris says.

"Someone needs to be trained to look after that pool. And I don't know why, either the companies not taking it seriously, or whatnot, but there needs to be more oversight of hotel pools."

Currently, pools and an aesthetics business are the only ones listed as charged or closed on the Check Before You Chose website.

While there will always be outliers for food safety, the vast majority of food-serving businesses are in compliance.

"Nobody wants to make people sick," says Morris.

But if you're wondering about a place, you can always hit the Check Before You Choose website, she says. They'll also investigate complaints.

And starting Dec. 10, the Mercury Tribune will be posting results from the health inspectors' visits, in a weekly "dine safe" article.

Every week, you can expect to be informed of any restaurant closings, directly on our site, or in your email.

Happy eating.