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Who is keeping an eye on your food? Waterloo region performs more than 6,000 food safety inspections annually

Making sure food preparers have their hair tied up in a net is something public health inspector Bernadette Moussa looks for when she enters many commercial kitchens.

“It’s not much of a problem here,” she said while on an unscheduled checkup at Kitchen Kuttings in Elmira last Tuesday morning, where women in crisp white aprons and hair nets were gathered around sorting tables, filling Christmas gift baskets with in-store homemade items and foodstuffs made by various suppliers in the area.

Despite a squeaky clean safety record and a newly renovated location on Arthur Street, Kitchen Kuttings, which features a deli and restaurant, and other goodies baked on site, is what Moussa refers to as a high-risk production facility.

It often incorporates three or more “preparation steps” or processes to make items from scratch, compared to two-step pizza shops or purveyors of pre-packaged goods only, such as variety stores, which are inspected less frequently overall.

”I’ve had infestations where cockroaches were seen running around on food contents, surfaces, or on the floor in various areas."

“Meat slicers are known to harbour a lot of microorganisms, so it’s important that after you use them they’re fully dismantled, washed and sanitized,” Moussa explained. “It’s insufficient just to wipe them down.”

When it comes to food kept in coolers, raw items have to be on the bottom shelves, with ready-to-eat items stored on upper shelves, to prevent contamination.

Raw baking ingredients and other materials stored in bags and containers must be properly sealed and be placed on shelves or skids. They can’t just be sitting on the floor.

“We don’t want items stored in open bags where bugs and other things can get in there," she said.

”I’ve had infestations where cockroaches were seen running around on food contents, surfaces, or on the floor in various areas."

In other establishments Moussa's dealt with sick food handlers and power outages.

"It can be anything."

Judging by its pristine cupboards and cooking utensils, Kitchen Kuttings is a great example of a business that’s organized, Moussa said.

Business records are also assessed for details like the number of people served to help determine the frequency of inspections, according to Aldo Franco, the Region of Waterloo’s manager of health protection and regulation.

Inspections on the rise
Franco said the region’s public health inspectors conduct more than 6,000 inspections related to food safety each year.

In 2018 they conduced 5,775 scheduled food safety inspections and 1,057 related re-inspections – follow up on non-compliance areas the inspector felt needed to be re-checked.

Those numbers likely reflect a growing number of food premises overall, from 2,867 in 2014 to about 3,200 today.

Under ministry standards and protocol, the goal is to reduce the burden of food-borne illness, and part of that includes enforcement of Ontario Food Premises Regulations, which set minimum standards for food temperatures, food handling, sanitation, dishwashing and personal hygiene.

Franco said he likes to take a progressive approach to enforcement, with 27 inspectors assigned to geographical areas. They also oversee a variety of investigations and programs for safe drinking water, recreational pools, spas and splash pads, long-term care, retirement and daycare facilities, beauty and tattoo parlours, barbershops and rabies.

Food safety inspections represent more than half of their workload, however, and Franco said enforcement has increased since he took over as manager in 2015.

“We continue to develop our inspectors and build their confidence,” he said. “It’s a tool we have in our toolbox.”

What they found
Last year inspectors disposed of food about 200 times due to temperature abuse or potential contamination. They issued 48 tickets to 29 food premises, as well as eight orders under the Health Protection and Promotion Act to shut down or temporarily close operations to mitigate a health hazard.
Orders are issued for infractions like pest infestations, unsanitary conditions and a lack of running water.

Because inspections are unexpected, they give you a good indication as to how a business operates on a regular basis, said Moussa.

“We take pride in the work we do for the public," Franco said. "We feel it’s an important service and that we do good work.”

Relatively speaking, the number of critical and non-critical infractions isn't high in Waterloo region given the number of inspections that are conducted overall, Franco said.

People can go online to the Check It! We Inspect It! website to review findings at local establishments, which can ultimately help them make informed decisions as consumers, Franco noted. Also, if someone has a concern, they can register a complaint, and staff will follow up.
Requirements for food-handling certification, temperature control and storage are among some of the clear-cut requirements, but there are also many grey areas when it comes to handling, preparation, sanitation and maintenance, according to Moussa.

There were a couple small things Kitchen Kuttings was required to do, such as provide packaging dates on cheese balls and change a bucket of sanitizing solution that a test strip showed needed refreshing.
Inspectors essentially work with operators to gain compliance.

“People often see us as the bad guys,” Moussa said. “In the end, enforcement is the last resort. We like to think of ourselves as educators.”

She said inspections are mostly about making sure businesses stay proactive and up to date in their processes.

“Things happen and people are human. The biggest thing is we work together.”