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Thunder Bay health unit says 1st year public food safety scores a success

Program compels businesses that serve food to publicly display letter grade of most recent inspection

Public health officials in Thunder Bay, Ont., say they're pleasantly surprised by the letter grades they've been assigning to restaurants and other food-serving businesses for cleanliness and food safety in the city over the past 12 months.

The Thunder Bay District Health Unit officially launched the DineWise program last January. Through changes to the city's bylaws, the program mandates that the results of an establishment's most recent food safety inspection — distilled to an A,B,C or D letter grade — be publicly posted.

About 85 per cent of the roughly 800 inspected businesses in the city scored an A, according to Lee Sieswerda, the health unit's manager of environmental health. 13 per cent received a B, he continued, while the remaining two per cent scored either a C or a D.

"To be honest, we really were surprised," Sieswerda said."We were really calibrating the system initially so that B would be the most common grade and then just in exceptional circumstances, people would get an A."

"So yeah, we're a little bit surprised by that, but also, of course, very pleased by it."

Part of the reason for the high grades, he said, was that business owners had plenty of time to initially prepare for the program. Prior to inspection scorecards being displayed on the property, health unit staff visited restaurants and other food-service businesses, delivered information packages and explained how the grading system works, Sieswerda said.

"The food premise operators actually did a really good job preparing," he said. "They hit the ground running."

Provincial regulations dictate that some businesses be inspected more often throughout a calendar year than others, Sieswerda said, meaning that some restaurants could see their letter grade change throughout the year.

•Restaurants that do a lot of on-site cooking and fresh food preparation are inspected three times annually;
•Restaurants that do less — typically that includes fast-food businesses — are inspected twice annually;
•Other businesses that typically serve pre-made food — like convenience stores — are inspected once per year.
Still, he added, very few businesses saw a dramatic change in letter grade over multiple inspections. "There wasn't really a significant difference in the distribution of grades from, say, the first quarter of 2017 to the last quarter of 2017."

Program could expand, move online

Currently, only businesses in Thunder Bay are subject to the program, Sieswerda said, as it is administered and enforced through municipal bylaws. Changes to provincial regulations, expected to come into effect in July, however, will mandate all food-serving premises in Ontario publicly post signage provided by their local health unit, he said.

That means the Thunder Bay health unit can roll out DineWise in other communities it covers without having to seek amendments to their municipal bylaws.

Even with provincial regulations changing in July, Sieswerda said there's no timetable in place for the program to expand outside of Thunder Bay; the health unit hasn't yet distributed information about the initiative in the district.

One expansion to the program in Thunder Bay that may happen this year, however, is restaurant grades being posted online with more detailed information about the inspection — something Sieswerda said many people appear to support.

"We intend to address ... those concerns through an online disclosure system sometime in 2018," he said. "But it involves a rather significant upgrade to our information system."