175 principals sick: Brisbane needs to up its food safety

An op-ed by me in this morning’s Brisbane Courier-Mail:

g20.brisbane.14If Brisbane wants to be the world-class city it aspires to be, put aside obsessions with TV cooking shows, with political inanities, with imports and focus on what makes people — such as 175 delegates at a school principals’ conference — sick.

After decades of food safety research, I can conclude anyone who serves, prepares or handles food, in a restaurant, nursing home, day care centre, supermarket or local market needs some basic food safety training. And the results of restaurant and other food service inspections must be made public and mandatory.

Here’s why. Parenting and preparing food are about the only two activities that no longer require some kind of certification in Western countries. To coach little kids ice hockey in Brisbane, which I do, required 16 hours of training. But anyone can serve food.

Cross-contamination, lack of handwashing and improper cooking or holding temperatures are all common themes in food-service related outbreaks — the very same infractions that restaurant operators and employees should be reminded of during training sessions and are judged on during inspections.

eat.safe.brisbaneThere should be mandatory food handler training, for say, three hours, that could happen in school, on the job, whatever. But training is only the start. Just because you tell someone to wash their hands after using the toilet before they prepare salad for 100 people doesn’t mean it is going to happen; weekly outbreaks of hepatitis A confirm this. There are incentives that can be used to create a culture that values safe food and a work environment that rewards hygienic behaviour.

Next is to verify that training is being translated into safe food handling practices through inspection, which should be public and mandatory.

Brisbane’s star system is voluntary, which means an owner can choose to not display results if they suck. The best cities — Toronto, Los Angeles, New York — have mandatory disclosure.

In the absence of regular media scrutiny, or a reality TV show where camera crews follow an inspector into a place unannounced, how do diners know which of their favourite restaurants are safe?

Cities, counties and states are using a blend of websites and letter or numerical grades on doors, and providing disclosure upon request.

In Denmark, smiley or sad faces are affixed to restaurant windows.

Publicly available grading systems rapidly communicate to diners the potential risk in dining at a particular establishment and restaurants given a lower grade may be more likely to comply with health regulations in the future to prevent lost business.

More importantly, such public displays of information help bolster overall awareness of food safety among staff and the public — people routinely talk about this stuff. The interested public can handle more, not less, information about food safety.

I volunteer at my daughter’s school tuck shop — no inspection, no training — and they’re serving meals to kids. Principals visiting Brisbane, unfortunately, learnt the importance of food safety.

Dr. Douglas Powell is a former professor of food safety at the University of Guelph in Canada and Kansas State University in the U.S., who is now based in Brisbane.


0478 222 221

Public health risk at Canberra’s eateries

The nation’s capital could be more open.

Australian Capital Territory Health’s “name and shame” list reveals that nearly two dozen restaurants, cafes and fast food outlets in the ACT have been hit with fines totalling more than $230,000 for breaches of food safety standards since 2011

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No EvilThe register only lists eateries found guilty of food offences, and because of investigative, administrative and appeal processes it can take between 18 and 24 months before the date of an offence and the conviction appear on the register. 

Inspections of restaurants, cafes and food stalls have risen in the past three years, increasing from 1994 in 2012 to 2334 last year. 

More than a dozen Canberra restaurants were forced to shut their doors last year because of an immediate public health risk or failing to fix food safety breaches, new figures reveal.

Cockroaches littering the floor, mouldy food stored in a cool room, a floor covered with thick, grey congealed food waste and power points caked in grime and grease: these are just some of the unpalatable images of appalling food standard breaches health inspectors have discovered in restaurant kitchens in Canberra.

ACT Health figures show 14 restaurants were closed last year after being slapped with prohibition orders because of an immediate public health risk or failure to comply with improvement notices. 

There were also 395 improvement notices issued last year, 32 more than 2013 and 101 more than in 2012. 

Improvement notices are issued for less serious breaches. They identify areas of non-compliance and give eatery owners a deadline to rectify the breaches. 

ACT Health said details of the restaurants and breaches were “not able to be provided.”

The ACT government is yet to decide on the details of a possible “scores on doors” food hygiene rating system for restaurants, such as whether it will be compulsory and when it will be introduced. 

We celebrated the year of the sheep – Chinese New Year – with some friends at their house last night after hockey. Yummy.


Jersey officials plan database of restaurant health inspection reports, higher fines for violations


Spurred on by the outbreak of Hepatitis A linked to a food server at Rosa’s Restaurant and Catering, Hamilton Township in New Jersey is taking steps to ensure that every consumer knows just how safe — or unsafe — food establishments are, with an online database of food inspection reports scheduled to go live within the next few months.

jon.stewart.handwashing.2002“Accountability is everything,” township health officer Jeff Plunkett said on Friday. He said a new ordinance is also being drafted to increase fines for health code violations.

The new database will allow customers to simply search for the name of a restaurant to view its health inspection reports, Mayor Kelly Yaede said Friday.

“This is an initiative we’ve been working on for a year,” Yaede said, attributing the concept to one proposed by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee at the 2014 U.S. Conference of Mayors.

“The number one goal of our health office is to maintain the public safety of our residents,” Yaede said. “This tool makes these restaurant inspection reports more readily available to individuals when they’re making a choice of whether they’re going to patronize a restaurant.”

It isn’t clear whether a restaurant’s entire history or recent history of inspection reports will be available, Yaede said.

“As much information as we have that’s accessible will be released to the public,” Yaede said.

The software will hopefully provide an incentive for restaurants to maintain clean bills of health: It could provide a sales boost for the cleanliest establishments and motivation for less cleanly restaurants to fix problems, Yaede said.

“It would be a positive tool for a majority of restaurants in Hamilton to help them promote their business,” Yaede said.

“And if you don’t have a good report? There’s more of a bite in it for enforcement,” Plunkett said.

Name and shame, Vietnam style

Supermarket and residential market food safety inspection results will be open to the public in 2015, Deputy Minister of Health Nguyen Thanh Long said on Wednesday.

Vietnamese. Wedding FeastThe names of food providers that violated food safety regulations and those that adhered to them would be made public to ensure customers’ right to access to safe food, Long said.

In another effort to make food safer in 2015, the Ministry of Health planned a pilot programme, under which ward and commune inspection teams would be placed in Ha Noi and HCM City to examine food suppliers and deal with regulation violators.

“Those sub-district inspection teams will be granted the ability to impose direct fines on the violators,” Long said. “This is a radical idea we are rushing to implement as soon as possible.”

How about disclosure? Wisconsin restaurants support new food safety standards

Ed Lump, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, writes in the LaCrosse Tribune that to say food safety in restaurants and other food outlets is important is an understatement. However, the public doesn’t hear much about it unless there is an actual outbreak of foodborne illness. Occasionally, awareness is heightened by publication in local newspapers or TV segments about restaurant inspection reports.

restaurant.inspectionOn Jan. 1, we took another big step forward as a new law (strengthening a 20-year-old existing law) went into effect. The original law requires that every restaurant in Wisconsin, regardless of size, have at least one manager on staff certified in food safety (Certified Food Protection Manager). To become certified, the manager has to pass a state approved exam.

The existing law also requires that a Certified Food Protection Manager be recertified every five years. However, recertification was accomplished by class time — no exam. Now an exam is required for both original certification and recertification. WRA feels this is the best way to ensure the manager demonstrates knowledge and is up-to-date on current science and food codes. By the way, the city of Milwaukee has required this since 2008, which our association also supported.

This is why food safety knowledge accountability is critical. WRA supported this stricter re-certification process because it helps to protect customers, restaurants and our industry from dangerous and costly outbreaks of foodborne illness.

Lump doesn’t say whether that certified manager has to be present or at home.

That’s where disclosure can play a role.

Sari Lesk of Stevens Point Journal Media, home of Portage county, Wisconsin, writes that Portage County diners can now go online, before they go out, to find out how a local restaurant performed in its most recent health inspection.

Public access to the inspection reports, contained on a portal called Healthspace, went live Monday. A link to the portal is available on the county’s home page.

restaurant.inspection.la.porn.mar.13The inspections date back to July 2013 and will, over time, display the results for three years’ worth of data. The information is organized alphabetically by restaurant name.

Users can tell if a restaurant’s health violations fall under one of three categories:

  • Priority: Violations such as improper cooking, reheating, cooling, or handwashing. These violations are known to cause foodborne illnesses. Uncorrected priority observations usually result in a reinspection.
  • Priority foundation:Violations such as no soap or single-use toweling available for handwashing, failure of the person in charge to properly train employees, not maintaining required documentation, labeling or records. These observations support or enable a priority violation and may contribute to a foodborne illness. Priority foundation observations will be reexamined during the next routine inspection.
  • Core:Violations that usually relate to general sanitation, operational controls, sanitation standard operating procedures, facilities or structures, equipment design, or general maintenance. Core observations will be reexamined during the next routine inspection.

The website also lists recommendations for correcting the violations, and notes whether they were corrected in a follow-up inspection.

Public health environmental specialist Lindsay Benaszeski cautions that the information should be looked at as a snapshot in time, but that the business owners she’s told about the online access have largely been receptive to the idea, adding, “It’s kind of a way to showcase their facility if they’re doing a great job,” she said.

Some restaurant owners disagree, however. Jim Billings, president of the Portage County Tavern League and owner of Final Score, said he thinks the information could be easily misconstrued by someone who does not work in the restaurant business.

Hawaii department of health fines $8,000 for food safety violations

The state Department of Health has cited a Waimalu restaurant for intentionally removing the posted yellow “Conditional Pass” placard from its facility, and for food safety violations. 3W Restaurant Group LLC., which does business as Ichiben, was slapped with an $8,000 fine.

doug.honolulu.rest.inspecThe restaurant, which is located on Kaahumanu Street in Waimalu, may request a hearing to contest the notice. Peter Oshiro, the Department of Health’s Environmental Health program manager, says this is only the second incident involving intentional removal of a placard, with more than 2-thousand inspections completed.


Red-green disclosure for Simcoe county (that’s in Canada)

Barrie, I miss you.

The Canadian town, north of Toronto, was home to my aunt and uncle, who I enjoyed hanging out with (they let me sleep with whoever my girlfriend was).

orillia.rest.disclosureNow, the general public is getting a little more insight into the cleanliness of Simcoe-Muskoka’s 3,900 food establishments.

At the beginning of the month, green placards began popping up in the windows of restaurants, convenience stores and other places where food is served, sold or prepared as part of the Inspection Connection initiative launched late in 2014 by the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit.

With roughly 20 food inspectors responsible for looking into the 3,900 establishments, which include 1,100 restaurants, it will take a bit of time to get the new signs up throughout the region, said Steven Rebellato, director of health protection services for the health unit, but he is hopeful the distribution will be complete in the next month or so.

Inspection of food establishments is nothing new for the health unit, but promoting the results both through a pass or fail placard and an all-encompassing website (inspectionconnection.ca) is.

“Visibility is the change,” Rebellato said. “Most health units have this type of program in place.”

Visitors to food establishments in the City of Toronto or York Region will be familiar with the placards. Toronto’s, which features a green (pass), yellow (conditional pass) or red (closure) card, is one of the oldest in the province, spanning some 13 years.

Simcoe-Muskoka’s program only features a pass or close option.

“There are only two signs, which is consistent with our approach since we started,” Rebellato said.

The decision to only have the two signs came from consultation with the operators of the establishments as well.

“If you put a yellow in my door, you might as well put a red, because (patrons) don’t know what that means,” Rebellato said, using an anecdote from a restaurateur on King Street West in Toronto, where there are dozens of restaurants in direct competition.

“We didn’t want to confuse the public.”

Worst words a bureaucrat can say.

Hawaii restaurant cited for removing yellow placard

The Hawaii State Department of Health has issued a Notice of Violation and Order against 3 W Restaurant Group LLC d.b.a. Ichiben for $8,000 for intentionally removing the posted yellow “CONDITIONAL PASS” placard from its facility and for food safety violations cited during the health inspection resulting in the issuance of the yellow placard.

doug.honolulu.rest.inspec“With more than 2,000 inspections completed since the start of the new placarding system, we’ve seen excellent compliance with the food industry; this is only the second incident involving intentional removal of a placard,” said Peter Oshiro, Environmental Health program manager.  “The program is a huge success and after completing the most challenging inspections involving eating places in the higher-risk category, we are well on track to complete the inspections for all licensed food establishments this year.”

A food establishment may face fines of $2,000 per day for removing an inspection placard posted by DOH and $1,000 per day for each critical violation that led to the facility receiving a yellow placard. Placard removal is a serious violation because this act intentionally places profit above health and safety and compromises the public’s trust and their right to know when violations occur during an inspection.

So should restaurant inspection disclosure: Health Star Ratings should be compulsory, Australian health groups say

Brisbane and other Australian cities have this system of restaurant inspection disclosure where a vendor get stars, but the posting is voluntary.

eat.safe.brisbaneThat isn’t what they do in Toronto, Los Angeles, New York and hundreds of other cities.

I’ve asked why the system is voluntary, and the answer usually involves a lot of muttering, something about not pissing off the industry, and co-operation.

Public health is there to protect public health. That’s it.

So while it’s nice that four leading Australian health groups have called on the new Federal Health Minister Sussan Ley and the Australian government to make the new Health Star Ratings system compulsory for packaged food products, it would be nicer if they included mandatory restaurant inspection disclosure.

At least they have mandatory disclosure: Hawaii switching vendors after flawed food safety inspection system

The state is switching vendors after spending thousands of dollars on a flawed electronic system for food safety inspections. The Department of Health paid Paragon Bermuda $169,939 for the system that was supposed to cover billing, inspections, and online public access. After three years of problems, however, inspectors have gone back to manually filling out paperwork as the state starts the process to solicit bids from other vendors.

doug.honolulu.rest.inspec“One of the big problems was when the inspectors used the system in the field, it freezes up, it was very slow, and that was very frustrating for our staff,” explained Peter Oshiro, DOH environmental health program manager.

The state upgraded to an electronic system for restaurant inspections in September 2012, but the database is only available for internal use. Oshiro said it’s unclear whether all that information can be transferred into a new system or if the state will have to start over with the next vendor that could be in place by the summer.
“We figure cut our losses now, get out of this bad system, and hopefully we’ve refined our procurement process to the point where we’ll get another better vendor the next time,” said Oshiro.