Toronto Public Health’s DineSafe program was established in 2001 in an attempt to empower and educate the city’s restaurant customers. The program provides restaurants with green pass, yellow conditional pass, or red fail stickers based on the results of health inspections. Over the past two years, a number of U of T student favourites surrounding the St. George campus have performed poorly in their inspections.
“We monitor everything from convenience stores to hot dog stands, food courts, school cafeterias, and more,” explained Kris Scheuer, media relations consultant for Toronto Public Health. “We have more than 17,000 food premises ranging in risk. Low risk entails non-hazardous foods like bagged items, and high risk usually has to do with serving more vulnerable populations. Low-risk vendors receive one inspection a year, and high-risk facilities receive three or more inspections a year depending on whether or not they pass.”
Although most restaurants are required to put their coloured sticker in the front window of their establishments, school cafeterias don’t have to follow to the same guidelines. Brian Thompson, manager of Toronto Public Health’s Healthy Environments division, explained that this is because school cafeterias do not require a City of Toronto business licence.
“A Public Health Notice is required to be posted only at food premises that have a City of Toronto business licence. Public Health does, however, provide inspection information on the DineSafe website regarding their history,” said Thompson.
Located inside Hart House, Sammy’s Student Exchange is one school cafeteria that received a Conditional Pass in February 2012. The infraction resulted in a $500 fine for failure to maintain hazardous food at proper temperatures.
“You can’t always control what time of day [the inspectors] arrive,” said Sabrina Salhiya, general manager at Sammy’s, “Sometimes the health inspector comes in at the wrong time . . . and you haven’t gotten to clean up to get ready for the next thing.”
In reference to the inspector who gave them a Conditional Pass, Salhiya claimed: “He was fresh and new and wanted to do things differently, and that’s all there is to it, really.” She also cited that Hart House is an old building, making it difficult for the establishment to present themselves as polished as other restaurants.
Dumpling Queen, a Chinese restaurant at Yonge and St. Mary, cited similar problems. Dumpling Queen has had five infractions, as of January 17 — one “minor” and four “significant.”
Vincent Wu, the owner of Dumpling Queen, noted that the results of inspections often come down to the nature of the inspector. “Different house inspectors have different points of view,” he noted.
Wu also explained that one inspector arrived unexpectedly, catching the restaurant owners at an inconvenient time after the Christmas and New Year’s rush. “We didn’t expect them. I know that’s not an excuse, but we tried our best. If it was a major problem, [the inspector] would have shut us down.”
Wu said the restaurant has since changed their pest control company and has increased the number of weekly cleaning sessions. Like Salhiya, Wu mentioned that his restaurant is located in an old building, and the worn walls mislead some to believe the establishment is not safe. Both Salhiya and Wu claimed they have never received complaints from consumers.
Scheuer stated that restaurants cannot reopen until all problems identified in Conditional Pass inspections are addressed. Re-inspection of the premises occurs within 24–48 hours. If restaurants are cleared to reopen, they may receive more follow-up inspections — all of which are surprise inspections.
“We are not in the business of shutting down restaurants,” said Joe Mihevc, chair of Toronto’s Board of Health, in a recent CBC report. The report emphasized that DineSafe stickers allow and encourage consumers to make informed decisions about their restaurant choices.
In some cases, restaurants are required to close. Gabby’s on Bloor was closed in October 2013 due to failing a health inspection, with DineSafe citing pest control issues. Todd Sherman, the owner of Gabby’s, argued that the health inspector made a mistake.
“We have had a stellar record up until that inspection. We believe Toronto Public Health has made a great error,” explained Sherman. “We had just changed locations, and there was a great deal of construction on that street. There were a few dead insects in one of the delivery areas, and the inspector, who was new to the job, decided that it warranted a closure.”
“The reason health inspectors close a food premises is to remove or eliminate a health hazard. Infestations of rodents or insects are some of the hazards that can cause a closure. To re-open, the operator must prove to the inspector that the hazard has been removed or eliminated,” Thompson explained.
“The next routine inspection will depend on the risk categorization of the food premises. Additional inspections may be required if there are any further complaints,” Thompson said. Gabby’s closed October 30 and re-opened 2 days later, passing inspection on November 1.