04/11/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 06/10/2014 05:59 EDT

Restaurant inspections at national chains uncover repeated, major violations

Canada’s biggest analysis of public health inspection reports from national chain restaurants reveals that almost one in four inspections has at least one major violation, a CBC Marketplace investigation has found.

Major violations, such as improper food handling, inadequate handwashing and failing to keep food at safe temperatures, have the potential to negatively affect human health. Two million Canadians get sick every year from eating in restaurants, according to Health Canada.

In the largest investigation of its kind, Marketplace analyzed the data from a year’s worth of public health restaurant inspections in five Canadian cities -- Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, Toronto and Ottawa -- almost 5,000 reports in total. Two statisticians from the University of Toronto analyzed the data.

“Food safety is a very serious matter,” says Jim Chan, a retired public health inspector who spent 36 years with Toronto Public Health. “The public has a right to know so they can make informed choices.”

The Marketplace investigation looks at 13 national chains, including fast food, family restaurants and coffee shops.

The fast food restaurants included in the Marketplace analysis are KFC, A&W, Subway, Wendy’s, and McDonald’s. It also looked at the inspection reports for family dining chains Pizza Hut, Swiss Chalet, Boston Pizza, The Keg and Moxie’s, and coffee shops Starbucks, Second Cup and Tim Hortons.

Marketplace’s full investigation, Canada’s Restaurant Secrets, ranks the individual chains based on inspection history. The episode airs on Friday at 8:00 p.m. (8:30 p.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador) on CBC TV.

Major violations continue

Marketplace looked at a range of health violations, including temperature and food storage issues, food handling and handwashing problems, pest control, cross-contamination and general kitchen cleanliness.

In some cases, Marketplace discovered that serious problems continued even after restaurants were notified by public health inspectors:

- A Subway restaurant in Calgary was cited by health inspectors three times for contaminated cleaning cloths.

- A Moxie’s in Vancouver failed to keep food at a safe temperature during three consecutive inspections.

- A Tim Hortons in Calgary was written up by inspectors five times for a fly infestation.

According to the reports, handwashing was a significant problem in most cities, as was general kitchen cleanliness.

Hidden camera: some conditions ‘unacceptable’

In addition to the statistical analysis of report results, Marketplace used a hidden camera to document troubling behaviour at several locations.

​Retired Vancouver public health inspector Domenic Losito was alarmed by footage showing garbage strewn all over the kitchen floor at one restaurant.

​“At least try to get the garbage in the garbage can, but – I think I would have walked into this place, walked out and filed a closure notice right away. I just – it’s just unacceptable,” he said.

Other problems include a restaurant with inadequate hot water at the handwashing station in the staff washroom, an issue that health inspectors had cited on several occasions. That restaurant also failed to prevent cross-contamination of beverage ice.

“There have been foodborne illnesses that arise from contaminated ice,” Losito says. “If your hand then goes into the ice as well ... or if the scoop’s been contaminated previously, you’re basically just spreading that contamination.”

After watching the footage, Losito says that this restaurant should be closed

Losito says that inspection programs may have to be more rigorous when dealing with restaurants with recurring problems.

“We’re not there to keep the business operating, we’re there to protect the public,” he says.

In another example caught on hidden camera, a worker at a fast-food restaurant sneezes into her hands, takes cash from a customer, then reaches for gloves and makes a sandwich, without washing her hands. Experts say this behaviour is a major health violation, as it fails to prevent cross-contamination.

Restaurants major source of foodborne illness

Canadian households spend almost $2,000 every year dining out. And Health Canada says that of the four million cases of foodborne illness every year, half are acquired from restaurants.

​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,” Brad Hill, who got sick from E.coli 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 Toronto last year, more than 200 people got sick from Cronut burgers at the Canadian National Exhibition after bacon jam had been improperly stored.

“One of the biggest reasons for food poisoning is inadequate cooling and refrigeration, so that one it’s at the top of the list,” says Losito. “About 30 per cent of foodborne illness [is] because of inadequate cooling.”

But 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.

Marketplace contacted all 13 restaurant chains for comment about its investigation. Many of the restaurants told CBC that they take training and standards very seriously, consider customer health and safety a top priority and address any violations quickly as a matter of policy.

Restaurants Canada, the group representing the restaurant industry, refused to speak on camera about the investigation.

The group opposes the public posting of inspection grades, such as those used by Toronto Public Health in its award-winning DineSafe program. In Toronto, restaurants are required to post inspection results where patrons can see them. The DineSafe cards are colour-coded (green for “pass,” yellow for “conditional pass,” and red for “closed”) to make results easy to understand.

Restaurants Canada says the yellow cards are “problematic and misleading” because there are many factors that depend on subjective assessment and that grades present an oversimplified picture of safety.

The group says that consumers who want to know how a restaurant has performed during inspections should access the reports online.

While many jurisdictions make inspection reports available online, some do not make results public.