Q&A with a Toronto Public Health Inspector

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On every restaurant, bar, cafe, and bakery door or window in the GTA, you’ll find green (pass) yellow (conditional) or red (closed) sign.

But what does that mean exactly? Do you know what it takes for a restaurant, bar, café or bakery to pass a health inspection? What happens when they don’t

I decided to get the answers to these and many more burning questions, once and for all from an actual Public Health Inspector.

Anthony Nikolopoulos accepted my request. Find the interview below in its entirety.

Responses are provided by Toronto Public Health Spokesperson Anthony Nikolopoulos, Public Health Inspector, Community & Social Services.

Q. How long have you been a Toronto Public Health Inspector? How many restaurants do you estimate you've inspected in that time?

A. I have been a Public Health Inspector for the City of Toronto for the past 27 years and have inspected several thousand restaurants during that time.

Q. How did you get into field, and what are the requirements?

A. I was initially attending the University of Toronto in a general Arts & Science program and happened to visit Ryerson University with a friend, who was interested in their nursing program. 

While I was waiting in the admissions office, I was looking at all the course descriptions and happened to pick up the "Environmental Health Program" pamphlet. I read through it and found it quite interesting. Shortly afterwards, I transferred all my course credits to Ryerson, entered the program and completed the Environmental Health program in four years. 

In order to become a "certified health inspector", you are required to receive a Certificate in Public Health Inspection from the Canadian Institute of Public Health Inspectors. You are also required to complete a 24-week practicum for any Board of Health within the Province of Ontario, and prepare written reports on inspections you conducted during that time. Afterwards, you must complete a multiple choice examination and interviewed by a panel of public health professionals who describe scenarios for you to answer. Once you pass all three sections, you are presented with your certification.

Q. What is the best part of your job?

A. Personally speaking, I would have to say that the best part of my job is the independence. I enjoy being out of the office and in inspection area meetings with restaurant owners and operators.             

Q. What is the hardest part of your job? 

A. The hardest part is dealing with repeat offenders. You can provide all the education and guidance, but you will come across some owners or operators who don't understand. I try my best to educate them, and when that approach doesn't work, legal enforcement comes into play.

Q. Most people don't know what's involved in an inspection of a bar, bakery, café or restaurant. What are you looking for specifically when doing an inspection?

A. There are several areas that health inspectors are concerned about when conducting an inspection. Primarily, we are looking at food temperature controls; food being protected from contamination; employee hygiene and hand washing; maintenance and sanitation of food contact surfaces, utensils and equipment; maintenance and sanitation of non-food contact surfaces and equipment; maintenance and sanitation of washrooms; storage and removal of waste; pest control; and ensuring that the restaurant is maintained in a manner where no health hazard exists.

Q. What are the top three biggest hurdles Toronto eateries have to overcome?

A. From my personal experiences, the three biggest hurdles for any restaurant would be:

1. Having the owner present. I have come across numerous restaurants where there is an "absent owner," and staff are left to ensure those areas mentioned in above are maintained continuously.

2. Having knowledgeable staff, preferably those who have training in safe food handling practices. The restaurant industry is a transient work force. Many restaurants battle not only to find staff, but retaining them may be the hardest part. This is a difficult aspect for a restaurant to manage since most who work in the industry do not have an invested interest in the restaurant and are just there to get paid. It is not uncommon to enter a restaurant and constantly see a new set of staff each time. 

3. Proper and adequate pest control. As with any large city, pests such as mice, rats and cockroaches will continually be present. I have come across many operators who either did not know they are required to have pest control, or they do it themselves. Every restaurant is required to have service by a licensed pest control operator. 

Q. How long do inspections usually take? How many restaurants do you inspect in a typical day? 

A. Inspections can vary each and every time. An inspection that may have taken me an hour a few months ago, may now take an hour and a half or longer. Inspectors never really know what we're walking into until we start our inspection.

Restaurants are classified as High, Medium or Low risk based on a provincial categorization process. The process is dictated by the province, rather than Toronto Public Health. Restaurants rated as High will receive three mandatory inspections per year. Medium would receive two inspections per year, and Low would receive one per year. In addition, a restaurants risk rating can change. Each inspector assesses their restaurants at the beginning of every year.

I personally like to get to three to four restaurants in a typical day. However, this can change depending on what you see when you get into their kitchen.

Q. Has anyone ever astounded you with how clean and organized their establishment is? 

A. Yes. I always appreciate restaurants that go the extra mile and are diligent with their in-house practices.

Q. Is there a certain type of establishment that's harder to maintain than others – say a small family grocery store as opposed to a large fine dining restaurant, or a bar vs. a restaurant - or does it all come down to the same key issues?

A. Provincial regulation applies to all establishments that sell or serve food to the public. As an inspector, we apply the appropriate sections for that establishment. For example, establishments such as variety stores and bars have minimal food handling, so you may not apply certain aspects of the regulation. On the opposite end of the spectrum, full-service dining, and larger facilities and establishments will be subject to all aspects of the regulation. In the end, it comes down to the same key issues.

Q. Can a restaurant keep getting yellow cards (Conditional Passes) over and over again without getting flagged red and closed? Is there a number of times they can get yellow? 

A. A restaurant can receive numerous Conditional Passes, either for different infractions each time, or for the same infractions. If they are repeat infractions, our policy is to take legal action on these items.

If a premise receives a Conditional Pass on each inspection, there is a process whereby we consult with Municipal Licensing & Standards and a tribunal hearing would be scheduled, where it is determined whether a restaurant may have its license suspended or revoked. If a restaurant is posted "Closed" (red card), it is the result of an immediate health hazard, such as a pest infestation or no water.

Once a premises is "Closed," they are served with a Section 13 Order where the details of the closure are described, and what actions are required by the owner. This is a process that is resolved by court proceedings.

Q. What is the ratio of green to yellow to red cards you administer?

A. I can only reference establishments that are currently in my area. For the most part, restaurants in my area are compliant and do end up receiving a "Pass". It can vary from week-to-week and where I go.

Q. Is the state of restaurants from your point-of-view getting better, worse, or staying the same?

A. Personally speaking, I believe restaurants are getting better. The restaurant industry is hard and with social media playing such a huge role in businesses, restaurants have to be more diligent and cannot afford to be non-compliant. Many of the restaurants that I inspect now have their own internal quality control processes whereby daily checks are performed and signed off by staff.

Q. Is there somewhere online where there's an easy-to-understand layout of how it works for restaurateurs, as well as the public?

A. Yes, there is. Restaurants and the public can go to the DineSafe Inspection and Disclosure System web page. The inspection process is described here, along with sections on the Regulation, How To Pass Your Inspection, Make a Complaint, Contact Information and Helpful Links. The full link is: toronto.ca/health/dinesafe/system.htm.

 Q. Is it true that once you walk on the premises, the inspection takes place – no rescheduling or do-overs? 

A. Yes, that is correct. Inspectors have the authority to inspect a premises during regular business hours. We do come across operators who will say "we are very busy" and ask if it is possible to come back at a more convenient time. But once I am in a restaurant, the inspection moves forward. The only time I make an appointment is when a restaurant requests an inspection as part of their liquor license application, or they are brand new and wish to be inspected prior to opening to the public.

Q. What equipment do you use in your day-to-day?

A. There a few items that I carry on every inspection. Specifically, a probe thermometer for checking internal temperatures and steam tables; a laser thermometer; various chemical sanitizer test strips for checking sanitizer levels; a flashlight for checking under equipment and basements; my tablet for making entries on restaurants' inspection forms; and numerous signs (Pass, Conditional Pass and Closed).

Once the inspection is completed, the report is emailed to the operator while in the restaurant. These items are essential for any inspection.

Q. Is it a lonely job?

A. I wouldn't say that my job is lonely – it's actually quite the opposite. I am always surrounded by people and staff in any restaurant. Restaurant staff are always asking questions, especially if they have never been through an inspection. It's not uncommon for patrons to ask you questions – once they learn of your presence, it gives them a sense of comfort. 

You have to remember that the public rarely sees the inspector, and that's because we are always in the kitchen. While we are very much "behind the scenes", we're still there.

Q. You must have some unbelievable stories – what’s the most outrageous one? And heartwarming?

A. After 27 years as a Public Health Inspector, I have seen my fair share of stories. I remember conducting an inspection of a restaurant shortly after starting with Toronto Public Health. It seemed pretty standard upon entry, but as soon as I entered the kitchen, I immediately picked up on a distinct odour. This particular odour is generally linked to mouse infestations. It was an old building so I knew they would potentially have this problem. Older buildings can have numerous entry points and it is almost impossible to seal every crack. I got confirmation of this once I saw mouse droppings on a food preparation table.

The part that really disturbed me was that the staff who were prepping the food made no attempt to either recognize this or to stop all preparations for service. I eventually made my way into their basement and it got even worse. I could actually hear mice moving around inside a few of the burlap sacks that contained spices. The owner was not present at this time, so I had the manager call him. I informed him that his premises would be closed, and his managed was asked to patrons to vacate the premises. He remained closed for several weeks and I eventually returned for their re-inspection. 

There are always "feel good" stories too. I have worked numerous special events throughout the city, and just like restaurants, you never know what you're going to see. I recall working an event in the downtown core, and was inspecting a booth that was set up. This operator had a few issues when it came to hot holding hazardous foods at the appropriate temperature. I explained what equipment she must have (probe thermometer) and how best to set it up for her steam units. It took some time but they eventually got it right. To this day, I see the same operator at other events, and they always call me over to inspect their booth, even though I may not be their assigned inspector. They just want to show me how far they have come and how my first education session with them has continued to be implemented. I have to say that this is probably the best compliment I could receive.

I still receive phone calls and emails from restaurant owners and operators who I no longer inspect, yet they contact me for guidance and advice. That makes me feel like I have done my job and done it well. As they say, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression".

Every inspector has their own inspection style, and I personally believe when a restaurant is doing what they are supposed to do, it's good to let them know that. Conversely, when they are not doing what the regulation requires, we take the appropriate action through education and legal enforcement.

Q. Obviously, your job must affect where you eat. Is it hard to dine at a restaurant and not critique your surroundings?

A. When I do dine out, I am able to "turn it off," so to speak. Having said that, if I see something that is unacceptable, I will speak up and notify the manager. I may not always let them know that I am a health inspector, but I do speak out and would pass on my experience at this restaurant to the area inspector. 

Q. What are your favourite five restaurants right now and why?

A. Note from Media Relations – City staff cannot provide responses which may be interpreted as endorsements.