Food inspection reports are posted on the Department of Health and Wellness website. (Shutterstock/Africa Studio)

'We do get into conflicts': When a food inspector makes a surprise visit to a restaurant

Most restaurants take food safety seriously, but some do not, says Environmental Health Office

Food inspectors generally have no issues with about 90 per cent of restaurants on P.E.I., says Ryan Neale, manager of the province's Environmental Health Office.

But there are some food premise operators who get a little antsy when an environmental health officer unexpectedly comes through the door with a clipboard and pen and starts poking around their kitchen.

"Sometimes it's not the best feeling to have a health inspector or auditor coming into your establishment to try and find problems," Neale said.

"Certainly we do get into conflicts. You know if we have to issue a closure order or some other type of health order, that's going to have an impact on that person's business. They're obviously quite concerned and upset about that."

Most food operators understand the job of the office is to enforce the Public Health Act, Neale said, and nobody wants their customers to get sick. He said the inspections are often an opportunity to educate the food operators on safe practices.

All food premises on P.E.I. are inspected one to three times a year, says Ryan Neale of the Environmental Health Office. (CBC)

"We don't want to be a barrier to their success or to their continuing to operate. And if an operator can buy into that, then we usually have a great relationship with that operator and they see us as you know a second set of eyes."

Anyone who operates a food premise, which can include restaurants, food trucks, bakeries or any type of business that transports or holds food, must have a licence. An environmental health officer would consult with the operator and do a final inspection before issuing the licence.

We do get some operators that, you know, they choose not really to work with us.— Ryan Neale

Operators are given no notice of follow-up inspections, which are done once, twice or three times a year, depending on the "risk categorization" of the establishment — based on criteria such as what kind of food they serve, how much of it is handled by staff, the potential for bacteria, food safety knowledge of staff and past compliance, Neale said.

"We would normally start with a routine inspection," he said. "Operators are not aware of our visit date for those routine inspections. Those are completely, you know, surprise inspections."

'Risk assessment'

Inspectors look at how food is stored, prepared, cooked, held and served to prevent contamination. They look at the personal hygiene of the food handlers, as well as the cleanliness of food surfaces and equipment.

If a serious violation is found, such as contaminated food that could cause illness, the inspector has a decision to make — shut down the business immediately or allow it to remain open but discard the food in question.

Neale says most restaurants address any violations in a timely manner. (Brian Higgins/CBC News)

Neale said the challenge for officers is the risk assessment. There are several elements of food safety inspectors look at. Those can include fridges being maintained at proper temperatures, proper handwashing practices and facilities for staff and the presence of pests. 

"If there's evidence of rodents or rodent activity or insect activity in or around the food, those are the types of conditions that can definitely result in the contamination of food," he said. 

"Therefore when doing that risk assessment we know that the next customer that orders something from that menu could potentially get sick. And that's where we have to step in and stop that."

We do get some operators that, you know, they choose not really to work with us which does make it difficult.— Ryan Neale

Food inspection reports are posted on the Department of Health and Wellness website. In September, violations found at food premises included operating without a licence, failing to maintain the premises and equipment in a clean and sanitary condition and failing to store food at proper temperatures.

None of the violations warranted a closure. In each case, the operator was given the opportunity to address the violation by a certain date, usually within a week or so. 

As with the majority of cases, all the issues were quickly resolved, Neale said.

"We have great relationships with 90 per cent of our operators. And you might find that the majority of those operators are the ones that put some priority on food safety and food handling and the food that's leaving their restaurant. Essentially they take pride in what they're doing," he said.

Inspectors look for things like how food is prepared, stored and served. (Matthew Mead/Associated Press)

Neale said it is rare on P.E.I. for a restaurant to be shut down because of a food safety violation, but some operators still need to take food safety more seriously.

"There are certainly other establishments that, for one reason or another, either don't make food safety and food handling a priority. What we try to work on is their lack of understanding of why it's important," he said. 

"We do get some operators that, you know, they choose not really to work with us, which does make it difficult. But it's a matter of visiting and revisiting until that operator understands that we're there on behalf of the public."

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