Canadian households spend an average of about $2,000 every year eating in restaurants, and almost two million of us contract foodborne illnesses while eating out, according to Health Canada.
The difficulty for restaurant patrons is that Canada has a patchwork of rules and regulations around how inspection reports are made public.
Some Canadian provinces or cities publish inspection results, but they’re not posted in restaurants where people can see them before ordering a meal. Others, such as Manitoba, do not publish reports, although after a Marketplace investigation the province agreed to make some available to the CBC.
Toronto launched a public restaurant grading system more than a decade ago that posts the results where customers can see them, a move the city says contributed to a dramatic jump in compliance levels and a significant drop in foodborne illness. But an industry group has opposed attempts to introduce similar systems elsewhere, and few jurisdictions have adopted the city’s approach.
“Food safety is a very serious matter,” says Jim Chan, a retired public health inspector who spent 36 years with Toronto Public Health. “Anything that can affect my decision not to expose myself to a health hazard, any Canadian in the country should have the right to that information. As a citizen I should have that information to be able to make an informed decision.”
CBC Marketplace analyzed the data from almost 5,000 public health restaurant inspections in five Canadian cities -- Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, Toronto and Ottawa -- from a one year period.
Marketplace’s investigation, Canada’s Restaurant Secrets, ranks 13 chains based on their inspection records, including coffee shops, fast food restaurants and family dining establishments. The episode airs on Friday at 8:00 p.m. (8:30 p.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador) on CBC TV.
Restaurants a major source of illness
About half of foodborne illness in Canada happen from eating in restaurants, according to Health Canada.
A 2012 report by the Conference Board of Canada on improving food safety in Canada found that while restaurants are a major source of foodborne illness, inspections by themselves don’t go far enough to protect Canadians from getting sick.
“The restaurant inspection system is helpful; enforcement should be continued. But it is too sporadic, due to limited resources for inspections, to have a decisive impact on restaurants’ actual day-to-day food safety practices,” the report states.
While the report concludes that restaurants need to voluntarily adopt good practices, the group acknowledges that consumers need to be more aware of risks.
“Because half or more of food safety incidents are associated with restaurants and other food service establishments, consumer choices about where to eat can play a role in determining the level of risk to which they are exposed.”
In some cases, foodborne illness outbreaks traced back to restaurants have sickened dozens of people. In one 2008 case, an outbreak at a Harvey’s and Swiss Chalet restaurant in North Bay sickened more than 200 people, many with confirmed cases of E.coli.
“You have no choice but to trust the people who have prepared this for you,” one person who got sick in the outbreak told Marketplace. “Like, everything can look fantastic, but a couple days later you might [experience] a couple of very alarming symptoms.”
In another case in 2011, seven people were hospitalized after eating tuna at a Subway restaurant in the Vancouver airport.
However, according to Health Canada, while it’s the larger outbreaks that make the news, they represent only a small proportion of the overall number of foodborne illness in Canada.
And without the transparency that public grading systems guarantee, some restaurants have major violations that continue to be a problem, the Marketplace investigation found.
Toronto: More transparency, less illness
The Toronto DineSafe program requires restaurants to visibly post the results of their latest inspection, which are easy for the public to understand (the colour coded grades are green for “pass,” yellow for “conditional pass” and red for “closed”).
“It's very transparent,” Chan says. “The operator can actually see what the customer's seeing, so if you don't want customer to see something bad written on the report, make sure you correct it before the health inspector walks in.
“It's good news for food safety,” he adds.
After Toronto introduced the DineSafe program, the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association, an industry group, challenged the City of Toronto in court, arguing that the program was unreasonable and infringed the rights of restaurateurs. The industry lost the case and lost an appeal.
Since DineSafe launched in 2001, Toronto has seen a 30 per cent decline in the number of cases of foodborne illness, according to Toronto Public Health figures.
“It is not possible to conclude definitively that the increased public attention paid to food safety and the program enhancements implemented by TPH during this period were responsible for the reduction in cases,” a city report cautions, “but it is reasonable to suggest that these changes played a role.”
Toronto’s program has also become a model for programs around the world, from Sacramento to Shanghai. In 2011, DineSafe won the prestigious Samuel J. Crumbine Consumer Protection Award for excellence in food protection. Toronto is the only city outside of the U.S. to be awarded the prize.
According to Toronto Public Health, compliance rates have jumped dramatically since the program was implemented in 2001. When the program began, only 78.2 per cent of restaurants passed inspections; by the end of 2012, that number increased to 92.4 per cent.
Industry: Report cards ‘problematic and misleading’
Yet despite these successes, the restaurant industry continues to oppose public posting of inspection results.
Restaurants Canada, a group that advocates and lobbies for the industry, actively opposes broader implementation of grading programs like Toronto’s in other Canadian cities.
While regions near Toronto, including Peel, Halton, Hamilton and London, have also adopted publicly posted grading systems, diners elsewhere face a patchwork of public health reporting systems.
Some jurisdictions post inspection results online, but it’s up to consumers to look restaurants up individually and try to understand the results. Other places, such as Montreal, do not make inspection reports public.
When Montreal abandoned a plan to implement a similar system last year, Restaurants Canada -- formerly called the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association (CRFA) -- declared it “A win for members!” on its website.
“CRFA has long opposed Montreal’s potential adoption of the Toronto system due to the problematic and misleading nature of the yellow grade,” the group added.
Restaurants Canada also lobbied the government of Prince Edward Island during its regulatory review last year, focusing efforts, according to its website, “to steer them away from grading systems and other unwarranted regulations.”
The group refused to discuss on camera why it opposes public grading systems. In a statement, spokesperson Prasanthi Vasanthakumar wrote: “CRFA is opposed to the use of a ‘grade’ or ‘score’ to inform the public about the safety and hygiene of a restaurant because complex inspection findings based on subjective interpretations by individual inspectors cannot accurately or fairly be reduced to a single grade.
“If a restaurant is found to have serious food safety violations, it should be closed until those issues are resolved. If a restaurant is open for business, consumers should be confident that it has passed its inspection and provides a safe dining environment.”
Consumers who want to know how a restaurant has performed during inspections should access the reports online, the group says.