Food safety is something most of us take for granted.
When you go to a restaurant, you don’t imagine your meal might make you sick. Until it does.
In December, a group of diners from a Newmarket condominium learned just how quickly eating out can turn into weeks of illness when food is handled improperly.
The outing to the Grand Buffet, which has since closed and been replaced by a new restaurant, was meant to serve as the community’s annual holiday outing, resident Jim Greenwood explained.
Instead, it became a nausea-filled nightmare for many of the 51 people who attended.
“When we got there, the service was not good and the food was cold,” he said.
“All I had was the sushi and the people making it always had plastic gloves on.
“That might have been my saving grace.”
Mr. Greenwood’s wife, Gale, wasn’t so lucky. By the end of the following day, she found herself feeling seriously ill.
“We had friends over the next day and they didn’t eat a thing because they felt so nauseous,” she said. “I didn’t start to feel it until midnight.”
The exhaustion and nausea lasted for nearly three months and made for a truly miserable Christmas season, she added.
Others had it even worse, Mr. and Mrs. Greenwood said, as one woman was admitted to hospital and remained there for 10 days.
Mrs. Greenwood wound up in Southlake Regional Health Centre’s emergency room after her heart arrhythmia returned while ill.
“Many here were a lot sicker than me,” she said. “Some people were deathly ill.”
In light of their experiences, the Greenwoods were left with one question for York Region’s public health unit: “How could this happen?”
It’s more common than you think.
An outbreak occurs whenever two or more unrelated people develop acute symptoms, usually vomiting and diarrhea, infectious diseases control division manager Jenny Jung said.
Her division is alerted about potential outbreaks by physicians or members of the public and follows up with those affected to collect food or stool samples to determine if an outbreak is present and, if a food premise is suspected, the health protection division will also get involved.
Unfortunately, norovirus, the malady that afflicted Mrs. Greenwood and a number of her neighbours, is not an uncommon occurrence in the region and a frequent culprit of gastro-intestinal distress, she added.
It’s highly contagious and transmitted via the fecal, oral route, Ms Jung said. “If fecal material is brought to the mouth and ingested, then it’s very likely you’ll get it.
The best prevention is hand-washing with soap and water.
Following the outbreak, public health inspectors descended on the Grand Buffet Dec. 11, closed down the restaurant and subsequently laid charges, including operate food premise maintained in a manner permitting health hazard, fail to protect food from contamination or adulteration and operator fail to ensure floor of food-handling room kept clean, which carry fines of $375, $250 and $50, respectively.
They also found a host of other non-compliance issues.
The fines are dictated by the Health Protection and Promotions Act and serve as a starting point when it comes to charges, as inspectors can also petition the courts for higher penalties when dealing with particularly egregious offences, community and health services branch health protection director Joe LaMarca explained.
Inspectors were there every day that week and on the weekend, he continued, noting food-handling training was also provided.
The restaurant remained closed until the health protection division’s concerns were addressed.
Closure is one measure inspectors can enact in the event of a danger to human health and they can also opt for additional inspections above and beyond those prescribed by the province for repeat offenders.
The public health unit communicates its activities through the YorkSafe program, which residents may recognize from the decals in the window of most every restaurant in the region.
Unlike Toronto, which employes green, yellow and red signs, YorkSafe uses only green for open and red for closed.
Additional information is available on YorkSafe’s website, which allows would-be diners to peruse past inspections and their results.
The same information can be accessed by scanning the QR code on a YorkSafe window placard.
Despite the various protocols in place, it’s not nearly sufficient in Mr. Greenwood’s eyes.
“My point is, how do you know that’s enough?” he said. “If, in fact, they have the authority to ticket and close establishments, then why don’t they come down hard on these people?
“They should make sure it’s understood that they have a responsibility to ensure the food they’re serving is safe for the consumer.”
More should be done to protect and inform potential diners, Mrs. Greenwood agrees.
“I think the problems should have been posted on the front window for the poor people who came after us,” she said. “I think a lot of people became ill.”
Mrs. Greenwood said the region needs to do more to publicize potentially hazardous eateries than direct people to a website and toll-free hotline.
“That’s not enough,” she said. “I think for something as serious as an outbreak, they should shut the place down immediately and post notices at the front door, saying what the issue was and that it’s dealt with now.
“It should go into the newspaper.”
The region’s health protection division employs 23 certified public health inspectors who work to ensure the 6,139 food premises in the region are safe. Last year, they performed about 12,700 inspections.
In addition to food safety, the inspectors also have jurisdiction over long-term care facilities, daycares, personal services, arenas, migrant farms, tobacco retailers, possible incidences of rabies and the testing of small drinking water systems, pools, spas/whirlpools, wading pools, splash pads and beaches.
The division also has five senior inspectors responsible for promoting food safety awareness and providing education, such as the PROTON food-handler training program.
Food-service establishments are divided into three risk categories, Mr. LaMarca said, explaining a low-risk site, such as a convenience store, requires one inspection per year, while high-risk locations, such as a buffet restaurant, must be inspected at least three times annually. Medium-risk facilities, a butcher shop for example, require inspection twice each year.
York Region’s public health procedures are constantly evolving, Markham deputy mayor and regional community and health services committee chairperson Jack Heath said, pointing to the addition of QR codes to the green “pass” signs and the recent decision to inspect tattoo parlours and spas as examples. The public health unit is very active, inspecting more than 1,000 food-service establishments every month, and communicates its findings in a variety of ways, he said.
“I think it’s sufficient,” he said. “The inspectors visit every location at least once, depending on its risk assessment, and they don’t announce they’re coming, so they have to make sure they’re up to snuff.”
Mr. LaMarca also notes the region has 100-per-cent compliance with the inspection regimens as laid out by the province.
The legislation has gone through various changes since its introduction in 1997, he said, including a requirement to disclose the results of inspections and the re-definition of a high-risk premise. One change Mr. LaMarca and many members of the Canadian Public Health Association want to see is to make food-handling education a requirement by law,
“We provide education if businesses want it, but it’s not mandatory,” he said, referring to the region’s PROTON training. “What we’d like to see done is to make it a requirement.”
To learn if your favourite eatery checks out, call York Region Health Connection at 1-800-361-5653 or TTY 1-866-252-9933 or visit the YorkSafe site..