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The inspection gap: Big business, big problem for Nova Scotia’s food establishments

globalnews.ca, Nov. 23, 2017

Failed inspection: two words you never want to hear about your favourite restaurant. But what’s worse, is not knowing what deficiencies were found in that kitchen. In the final instalment in our special series, Global’s Rebecca Lau takes a look at what experts say is the best model when it comes to food safety regimes.

$1.9 billion. 

According to statistics collected by Restaurants Canada, that’s how much the food service industry in Nova Scotia rakes in in sales every year. 

Menu items such as Digby scallops, lobster rolls and the infamous Halifax donair are delicacies that draw people to Nova Scotia’s culinary industry, and they’re also the reason that food safety experts say the results of a Global News investigation are concerning. 

Global News has analyzed seven years of data obtained from Nova Scotia’s online database of restaurant inspections and multiple freedom of information requests and found that food establishments in the province can go six years without being inspected.

Additionally, nearly a third of the 8434 restaurants that have operated in the province during the last seven years have gone 18 months or more without an inspection — violating the province’s own regulations.

Safety is ‘key focus’ in Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia’s Minister of Environment, Iain Rankin, whose department is responsible for conducting food inspection in the province, says safety is key focus of the province. 

After being informed of the findings of Global News’ investigation, he says that any program capable of helping Nova Scotia improve its food inspection program would be worth considering. 

“I would say the online source is an important one, and again, that is where the world is going,” Rankin said.

“Certainly we would consider any other best practice and see how that is working, and we’d evaluate in that particular system to see if that is indeed improving the overall safety for patrons and restaurants.”

But according to some experts, not all systems are created equal.

Restaurant inspections in context

Most provinces, including Nova Scotia, employ a risk-based assessment method to determine when restaurants will be inspected. Each establishment is labeled as high, medium, or low risk of leading to foodborne illnesses.

How those levels of risk are determined, and how often they are supposed to be inspected, varies between provinces. 

Global News has analyzed the differences between Nova Scotia and the other provinces, illustrating how Nova Scotia carries out the least frequent inspections in two of the three categories.

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While Ontario’s guide to how a restaurant’s risk level is established can be found online, Nova Scotia’s is nowhere to be found. 

According to the risk categorization model, which was produced by the Government of Canada and referred to as a basis for the Nova Scotia model by a government spokesperson, there are eight factors that determine a restaurant’s risk categorization: the type of food produced, how the food is handled or prepared, the type of equipment of food facility, management and employee food safety knowledge, whether staff have taken a food safety management program, regulatory compliance, volume of food produced, and typical patronage.

A better model

Although both the food safety experts consulted for this investigation said it wasn’t perfect, food safety expert Sylvain Charlebois, dean of management at Dalhousie University, and Rick Holley, a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba specializing in food safety, each pointed to the DineSafe program in Toronto as the best example of an inspection regime in Canada. 

“Toronto, they have a very simple system. Green, yellow, or red. It’s very simple,” Charlebois said.

•Green indicates a pass for the establishment, meaning inspectors only found minor deficiencies or no problems at all.
•Yellow indicates one or more significant issues, such as improper cleaning and sanitizing of equipment and utensils; the establishment is then reinspected 24-48 hours later to ensure the issue has been corrected.
•Red means a closed notice and is issued when one or more crucial infractions, such as a rodent or insect infestation without effective method of pest control, are not corrected immediately.
The restaurant is then required to display a colour-coded card giving information on their latest inspection, allowing customers an easy way to identify what the concerns are.

Rob Colvin, a manager at the City of Toronto’s healthy environments group, says the DineSafe program has been well received by customers.

“The public absolutely loves it,” he said.

“It’s just so easy — they can look at the front of the restaurant see the green and they go. They see a yellow — well, then they can use caution, but know it’s still safe to proceed. Obviously if it’s a red, they stop. It couldn’t be much simpler.”

According to Colvin, new restaurants that haven’t been inspected yet often call Colvin’s group for an inspection because they are eager to hang a green sign in their window

He says it is difficult to overstate how successful the program has been.

“One of the keys for us was that when we introduced the program, compliance rates went up significantly. So, fewer re-inspections for us and overall just a safer restaurant population,” Colvin said.

‘Consumers don’t understand’

Gordon Stewart, President of the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia, an organization that represents the interests of the food service industry, disagrees. 

He says that the tri-colour system can be easily misunderstood by those who don’t understand the rigorous standards restaurants are held to. 

“It’s a bad model because consumers don’t understand,” Stewart said.

“Anything but green light and you think it’s going to be bad,” he notes. “Orange light could be so many different infractions, and that’s just the caution light.”

While DineSafe may be seen as too simplistic, the details on Nova Scotia’s website are nearly imperceptible. 

Inspection records can only be found by searching the website for a specific food establishment or time period. There is no map to select from.

Once a restaurant is chosen, the website does not provide the severity of any infraction or any details beyond a generic description.

To understand whether an infraction is bad or not, the user has to be able to wade through complex jargon or information usually only understood by food safety experts. 

To find out the same kind of information available through Toronto’s DineSafe program, a Nova Scotian would have to pay a $5 fee and request details through a freedom of information request. They would then have to wait nearly a month before the information arrives.

Global News followed the same process for this investigation.

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Charlebois says a strong reporting system would offer more details on problems identified during inspections and how much risk they pose to consumers.

“People don’t even know what inspectors are doing when they’re out there. If we actually allow people to understand what is happening during an inspection, then we would reassure people,” he said.