Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/6/2009 (4716 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Reporter Jen Skerritt analyzed city and provincial restaurant inspection data to uncover Winnipeg’s top health code offenders.
At first, the health inspector noticed the tiny West End restaurant’s equipment was dirty and could potentially attract mice.
Three days later, the hole in the wall lauded for its cheap bubble tea was shut down because of rodents and filth.
The violations landed Asia City in the city’s bad books — a target for more frequent inspections and stiffer penalties. But the threat didn’t prompt the restaurant to clean up its act.
By the end of 2008, the diner was caught in violation of four additional health-code offences and racked up more than $1,500 in fines.
And it’s far from the only place in town with dirt on its record.
A Free Press analysis of city and provincial restaurant inspection data uncovered that a handful of restaurants were repeatedly busted for some of the most critical health violations that can make people sick from food-borne disease.
In the last four years, five city eateries accounted for close to 20 per cent of all health-code violations, ranging from rodent infestations to serving chicken that wasn’t inspected or registered under the Meat Inspection Act.
Two had mice infestations, one stored toxic material near food and four were temporarily shut down due to unsanitary conditions.
Today, four of the five are still in business.
City inspectors can suspend a restaurant’s business licence without warning if repeat violations aren’t corrected and they deem it a danger to public health. To date, that power has never been used.
Officials admit their standard arsenal of tools — education, warnings, multiple visits — doesn’t always work, and that they may need to be more forceful to crack down on repeat offenders.
"You’re going to find a certain percentage of people that are totally unco-operative," said Peter Parys, the city’s manager of community bylaw enforcement services. "I think in some cases an argument (could be made) we need to take a more aggressive approach."
Most of Winnipeg’s 8,000-plus eateries are inspected once a year.
Health inspectors rely on the element of surprise and typically walk in unannounced so businesses don’t have time to clean up.
They’re on the lookout for red flags such as raw meat that’s sat on the counter for hours and employees who don’t wash their hands — things that increase the risk harmful bacteria will contaminate food.
While the majority of local eateries get a clean bill of health, there are dozens considered "high-risk" that don’t.
Between 2005 and 2009, 104 local restaurants were charged with violating food service bylaws. Of the 104, 64 were temporarily closed for major problems that posed a risk to the public, 15 were reprimanded, and the city collected more than $35,000 from the total number of violations.
That doesn’t include the 16 street vendors charged with 25 violations, totalling more than $3,700 in fines.
Parys said inspectors pay close attention to high-risk "Level 1" offenders, who have had critical violations in the past or have items on their menu that boost the odds of contamination. For example, meat that goes through multiple processes before it gets to the table is considered higher risk — frozen meat must be properly thawed, cooked to a certain internal temperature, cooled, and stored so it can’t cross-contaminate anything else.
Mike Leblanc, Manitoba’s chief public health inspector, calls this the "danger zone" for food and said more than 50 per cent of outbreaks of food-borne illness such as E. coli can be traced to improper heating and cooling.
Three of the five city eateries that racked up the most convictions were caught for so-called temperature abuses.
"If you see someone who’s not wearing a hairnet, you know that’s not quite as serious as some raw meat that’s been sitting out for eight hours straight," Leblanc said.
Inspectors will immediately shut down a restaurant with major problems and throw out any food that could make someone sick.
But slapping restaurants with reprimands and hefty fines is the last resort, said Parys, and inspectors first try to educate businesses about proper practices.
Food-handling training is available in nine different languages and inspectors sometimes bring in translators to ensure restaurant owners understand what’s expected.
Inspectors give out warnings and require businesses to make immediate upgrades by a certain date, such as replacing floors or ensuring there’s adequate soap for employees to wash their hands.
And if there’s no soap when the inspector returns, Parys said they may decide to take more serious action and issue a ticket.
Although fines help increase compliance, some places simply don’t abide by the rules.
Famous Wok topped the list of dirty diners last year, but assistant manager Jia Zhou said that was the way the old owner ran the business.
The chain changed hands after the string of violations and Zhou said the new owner threw out everything in the kitchen and brought in new equipment.
"In the one year before there was another owner and they ran the store not very properly. There were health problems a lot," Zhou said.
New management is one way to bring about change, but officials say the real problem is getting through to people who aren’t getting the message about the fallout from breaking the health code.
"I think now with our education program there’s less and less of them who don’t know," said Brian Rivet, a senior environmental health officer with the city. "They’re busy and they take shortcuts."
Shortcuts can have disastrous consequences.
In 2006, 40 people fell ill with a dangerous strain of E. coli after eating contaminated meat sold at four different restaurants. More than half of the cases were linked to meat sold by the Dutch Meat Market and four local hamburger joints that bought the meat and were busted for poor food-handling practices that may have contributed to people getting sick.
Stomachs across the city churned earlier this year when news surfaced that a local couple found dead baby rodents in a stir-fry they purchased from Sizzling Wok in St. Vital. Photos of the loonie-sized mice were posted online, and even veteran inspectors such as Leblanc admit they were extreme and disturbing.
Inspection reports show Sizzling Wok had been reviewed eight months earlier but no major problems were found.
It’s still unclear how the mice got into the noodles. An inspector who reviewed the eatery after it voluntary closed in May found no evidence of mouse droppings or gnawing.
Some restaurateurs say it’s unfair certain eateries are a constant target while others go relatively unchecked.
A manager at Ken’s Restaurant, who refused to give her name, said she sees city inspectors at her West End restaurant all the time while businesses on the outskirts of town don’t get many visits.
City inspectors patrol the core parts of Winnipeg, while provincial health inspectors are tasked with suburbs such as St. Vital and West Kildonan.
Staff in both jurisdictions have little spare time since they’re also responsible for ensuring public pools are up to code, investigating complaints of bed bugs, poor heating and mould in rental properties. They also inspect tattoo parlours and daycares.
There are currently nine provincial inspectors within the city. Leblanc denies the accusation that staff are too busy to make all the rounds.
Last year, Ken’s Restaurant was shut down for sanitary violations and charged for nine other health-code offences.
"We live off the restaurant for 16 hours a day and we look after, make sure everything’s clean and OK.
"Other places you go in — you can smell it. It’s filthy. And you wonder how do they get by?" the woman said.