CBC MARKETPLACE: YOUR FOOD » FOOD SAFETY
Broadcast: December 11, 2005
Repeated: April 16, 2006
Joanne Lum has
seen the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to supermarkets.
Joanne Lum is a health inspector in
seen the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to supermarkets.
Lum invited us to follow her for a day
as she made her rounds – unannounced, of course.
The first store we stop in on looks pretty spotless, but
looks can be deceiving.
Lum checks the temperature in fridges, dairy shelves, prepared
food displays. She checks to make sure the taps can run hot
The store gets an almost-perfect rating, but
it turns out Lum had called ahead because she figured it
would be difficult to have our cameras tag along.
(Sure enough, some of the biggest chains
let us in. A lot of the major supermarkets tell us they want
two or three week’s notice before they’ll let
a camera inside. So much for surprise visits.)
It’s impossible to know whether
the first store would have scored perfectly had they
not been called in advance.
To avoid the advance-warning problem, Joanne suggests we
try an independent supermarket, which lets us in with our
Lum is concerned to find
boxes of lettuce sitting on the floor of the walk-in
where meat drippings could contaminate them.
At the second supermarket, Lum spots
mouse droppings on some of the store shelves. There’s
a heavy buildup of dust and mould on some ceiling fans.
In the meat cooler, Lum spots a squash
sitting on a shelf below two large cuts of beef – this
is a no-no, because meat drippings could land on the squash
and cause cross-contamination, a potentially deadly situation
that occurs when bacteria from raw meat touches vegetables.
A number of cardboard boxes stuffed
with lettuce are stored on the floor – another problem, because they’re
resting in water that may contain meat drippings.
Outside the cooler, in the food preparation
area, there are crusty puddles of dried up grease and dirt.
Lum notices that the sink, where the store’s workers
should wash their hands, doesn’t have any taps.
Her inspection report warns that the store
has one week to shape up.
Later, we return with Lum to the store
to see if things have been cleaned up. They have.
is pretty spotless, and everything Lum noted in her report
has been corrected. “You
did a lot of good work, very good,” she tells the store’s
manager. “I’m pretty happy with the results.”
In a BBQ duck and meat
counter, Lum’s thermometer reads just 33ºC.
Most stores reportedly fix problems
after a visit by the health inspector. But public health
units are under-funded. Inspectors complain that they don’t have enough time
or resources to do what’s needed.
TIPS: What you can do to keep your food safe
Improper food temperature storage
The third store we check is a supermarket chain with stores in three provinces.
Partway through her inspection, Lum finds a serious problem with the food storage
temperatures at the store’s hot deli counter.
Hot food should be stored at 60ºC
and kept out for only two hours. When she checks the store's
BBQ duck and meat counter, Lum’s thermometer
reads just 33ºC.
“You’re in the danger zone,” she tells
the store manager. “You need to increase the temperature
of that. It should be at least 60ºC. How long has this
meat been sitting here?”
“Two hours,” the manager
A second check of her thermometer, and
Lum discovers the temperature has dropped to 27ºC in the hot case. She
opens one of the packages of meat to read its internal temperature:
Beware of the "Bacteria
Danger Zone," between 4ºC and 60ºC.
Since the store doesn’t print the time
of packaging on each product, Joanne says she has no choice
by to throw out everything in the store’s BBQ counter.
in the danger zone,” she repeats to the manager. “It
should be up to 60ºC, unless you have it out for just
two hours. But you don’t even label the times … and
that’s a major no-no. So we’re going to have
to discard all of this.”
Lum asks to see the BBQ counter’s temperature
logs (stores need to keep logs to prove that food temperature
is constantly monitored.)
She’s a bit surprised to see that store workers have diligently kept track
of the food storage temperatures – despite the fact that those temperatures
fell far below the required 60ºC.
can thrive on meat and poultry products that have sat out
in the danger zone (between 4ºC and 60ºC)
for more than two hours – even meat that’s
been thoroughly cooked. MORE: Food
handling and preparation
Lum says she doesn’t like discarding
food unless she’s absolutely sure it’s been improperly
handled. In all, $1,000 dollars worth of food from
BBQ counter is thrown out.
The health department closed
down the store’s entire hot deli department for
As it turns out, this store has a dirty
history. In the past 20 months, a health inspector has
told the store seven times that the meat counter isn’t
“We basically read the riot act
to them,” says
Vancouver health inspector Dominic Losito.
Eventually, the health department closed
down the store’s
entire hot deli department for two weeks – a big financial
hit – and put the staff through safe food handling
Losito says the store was lucky there
were no reported outbreaks of foodborne illnesses: “They
really did dodge a bullet. There are cases of well-run
places that lose business because of a mistake or two.
This was a series of mistakes.”
The law on inspections
In Toronto, if a health
inspector reports that a food service establishment
needs work, this yellow card is posted at the store
The law says supermarkets across the country must to be
inspected. Depending on how big they are, some have three
inspections a year, others just one. The health inspection
reports are recorded by the inspector and given to the store
Usually the consumer doesn’t see them at all – to
get your hands on an inspection report you’ll likely
have to file a Freedom of Information request. That takes
time and costs money.
Toronto and nearby Peel Region are the
only places in Canada that post a mandatory health inspection
rating at the supermarket’s
front door. If the store passes, you’ll see a green
card at the entrance. If it needs work, there is a yellow
card. If the store’s been closed because of food safety
issues, there will be a bold, red sign.
Toronto Public Health also runs a website for
the system, where you can check up on your local grocer.
Since the system was implemented in
2001, the stores are doing better in inspections. In
2001, about 25 per cent of them didn’t pass. Three
years later, a little more than 90 per cent are getting the
green pass card.
Peter Heywood is a health
inspector in Ontario's Kitchener/Waterloo region -
one of the few areas to post health inspections online.
Council of Grocery Distributors (CCGD) represents a
lot of the big chains we all know, where most of us do
our shopping. We asked CCGD spokesman Peter Alexander whether
a card system like Toronto’s
would make sense for the entire grocery store industry.
“We leave the question of making
law in the hands of legislators,” he said. “I
think that your viewers should be reassured that if the
store is open, everything in that store is safe to consume
But we filed requests and got our hands on inspection reports
from stores across the country. We brought a hidden camera
into stores and did some secret testing for cleanliness levels.
You won’t believe what we discovered.