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Global News investigates: Improper food handling ‘a time bomb waiting to happen’

Alberta Health Services inspection guidelines state restaurants usually have between one and three inspections a year, however, a Global News investigation showed some school cafeterias were not monitored as closely, with one school cafeteria failing to receive a visit from inspectors for 17 months.

Food safety professor Keith Warriner from the University of Guelph said school cafeterias should be inspected as vigorously as commercial restaurants.

“What was Public Health doing in this time? They should be visiting facilities like this at least three times a year,” he said.

“It depends on the rest of the risk assessment. If the schedule is a [once a] year, that’s a low risk establishment. These time frames are guidelines that also can be adjusted,” said Dr. Kathryn Koliaska, AHS medical officer of health, in response.

“For example, if there’s a closure two months a year [because of the summer] then that’s not 17 months of operating time.”

Koliaska said a new framework for inspection schedules for food establishments, as well as personal services establishments, has been in the works though there is no timeline on when it will be completed.

“We operate under the Public Health Act, investigating complaints, referrals from other agencies as well as we continue to look at a risk-based approach. Places that have more problems, need more support, need more education – we want to try and shift our resources there,” Koliaska said.

Culinary experts say although they believe awareness of clean cooking facilities has increased over the years, “unfortunately places do operate” that do not follow best practices — potentially compromising the health and safety of those eating there.

Global News examined inspection reports for school cafeterias in the Edmonton area for the last three years. Those reports showed facilities where food was not kept at the right temperature, workers who were not washing their hands after working with raw meat, mouse droppings on food equipment as well as food not being stored properly, such as raw meats stored on top of fresh produce. Food safety experts say the findings could potentially compromise the health and safety of students eating there.

Teaching future chefs best practices

Mike Maione, a culinary arts instructor at NAIT, said the best practices for a kitchen facility should be considered industry standards.

“Cleanliness — surfaces that are clean — as well as washing your hands continuously,” he said.

Maione took Global News through the best practices used at the NAIT Culinary Arts kitchen.

“You always want to make sure food that’s been frozen is going to be thawed in a refrigerated temperature — you never want to leave anything on a counter, you never want to leave anything in a sink of water,” he said.

AHS food guidelines state food should be kept either under 4 C or more than 60 C. Many inspection reports for Edmonton school cafeterias analyzed by Global News showed violations of that.

“Anything around [4 C to 60 C] is considered a danger zone. That’s where bacteria multiplies quickly with the improper environment,” Maione said.

The instructor said students in the NAIT program are required to complete an OHS checklist of the kitchen every day, which goes over points like cleanliness of the kitchen, checking traps for mice and whether any food has been left out. They are also taught to constantly clean the kitchen with proper sanitizer and thoroughly washing anything that has come into contact with raw meat.

“It’s a time bomb waiting to happen,” Maione said if best practices are not followed.

“Improper food handling or improper sanitation procedures essentially is going to make someone sick in one point in time.”

Appearances are everything

James Szutarski, a fellow culinary arts instructor at NAIT, said the appearance of a facility — be it a restaurant or a school cafeteria — sends a strong signal about how seriously it takes cleanliness.

“Most restaurants, when you go out and you sit, it can just be as easy as noticing things like… if you see bugs or dirty tables — it’s a good indicator probably the kitchen isn’t much better,” he said.

But he also said the onus does not fall squarely on the customer – those in the kitchen also have a big responsibility.

“When you’re feeding people, you have a responsibility to take ownership of what’s happening. You produce food, you nourish people, you want it to be safe and you want people to have a food experience – essentially that’s the be all, end all.”

You can check how your child’s school cafeteria fared by heading to the AHS Restaurant Inspection Database.