Times have certainly changed since I was a teenage waitress, I thought recently as I watched my young café server butter a bagel in her spotless latex gloves. At the high-end restaurant in Stratford, Ont., where I once worked, we were so unconcerned with hygiene we used to stick a finger in the soup to test the temperature, and ignored the maggots in the meat slicer until an hour before the health inspector came. Things today seem far more sanitized, I thought’until I watched my server fix her ponytail, rub her nose, take the previous patron’s money and then hand me my muffin, all with the same gloved hand. Has restaurant hygiene really improved?
In some ways, new regulations suggest it has. Today many of Canada’s cities, towns and municipalities have more rigid inspection systems and better training for food handlers, and public awareness of food safety is higher than ever. But because of the different levels of government involved, and the fact that different organizations are in charge of various aspects of food safety’in other words, there’s no centralized body running the show’the standards are inconsistent. For example, in some jurisdictions, employees are required to have food safety training; in others, they aren’t.
So we don’t know how well inspection systems and awareness campaigns are working. And we don’t know which areas in Canada have the most hygienic restaurants or which foods are the worst culprits. ‘There’s nobody in this country who can tell you if more people get sick from ice cream or fried chicken wings,’ says Rick Holley, professor of food microbiology and food safety at the University of Manitoba, and a member of the external advisory panel on food safety for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).
What we do know is that every year between 11 million and 13 million Canadians’one in three’contract a food-borne illness. And while it’s the backyard barbecues, potluck suppers and big processing plants that are often cited as the villains (remember the dramatic 2008 nationwide listeriosis outbreak linked to Maple Leaf Foods?), the reality may be different. While there are no comparable figures for Canada, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that food-processing operations account for only three percent of all outbreaks of food-borne illnesses. Homes/backyards account for 20 percent. And food services’e.g., restaurants, private catered events and institutions such as daycares, school cafeterias and retirement homes’account for a whopping 70 percent. Of that 70 percent, 23 percent are restaurants specifically.
Be assured: Most restaurant foods are safe. But since the average Canadian eats one in 10 meals or snacks in restaurants, there’s a good chance that at some point, eating out will make you sick.
What you can do
Since restaurants involve real people serving real food, we need to recognize that there will always be some degree of risk, and assess what risks we’re willing to take, says Brita Ball, director of the Food Safety Network, a non-profit centre of research and consumer information based at the University of Guelph.
Before you sit down in a restaurant, Ball and Holley both suggest that you give it a visual once-over to appraise its general hygiene. While a clean appearance is no guarantee of safe food, a dirty one might indicate a lack of concern with cleanliness. If you’ve found that ‘a restaurant didn’t pass a previous inspection, ask management why; it could be an infraction that had nothing to do with food safety.
Practise safe food handling at home and teach it to your kids, so that if they ever work in a restaurant, they’ll already be aware of the basics.
And relax. ‘We’re on a par with any developed country in terms of food safety,’ says Mansel Griffiths, director of the Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety (involving a network of researchers from universities and government) and the senior industrial research chair in the department of food safety at the University of Guelph. Holley adds, ‘I’m certainly not paranoid about food safety in restaurants, just determined to raise the level of awareness.’