Yellowknife's restaurant inspectors have been checking off the "not-observed" box on their inspection sheets, indicating they're not seeing handwashing in over a quarter of all city restaurants and food-handling locations.

That means workers in one in four food locations in Yellowknife are not checked by inspectors to see if they're complying with one of the critical inspection items — "hands clean and properly washed," according to a CBC News analysis of the territory's most recent restaurant inspection data.

"It seems like not only are those critical things not followed by the restaurant, but the inspectors themselves are not necessarily looking for them or spending long enough time to observe them," says Lawrence Goodridge, a food safety professor at McGill University.

"And in my opinion, handwashing is probably the most important part of food safety."

40 minutes to 4 hours

Inspections can range from 40 minutes or less, to up to four hours, says Peter Workman, the territorial government's chief environmental health officer.

During that time, inspectors will look out for both critical and non-critical items listed on their reports, he says.

Inspectors in the N.W.T. can give one of four marks for each item: a yes (for compliance), no (for not in compliance), not applicable, and not observed during the time of inspection.

Many items in both lists are "not observed" in the city, sometimes up to 16 critical items, according to data.

But Workman says inspectors "have to do things in a timely fashion," and says handwashing is not always required.

"It's not a case that we're not spending enough time to see it... If they don't sneeze, cough, handle something dirty, touch something else, they don't need to wash their hands again, until such a time as they switch activities and need to wash their hands."

None of the Yellowknife food locations received a "no" for compliance for hand washing.

Asked to clarify the difference between a "no" and "not observed," Workman said a "no" is contaminated handling of food, while "not observed" means the inspector simply didn't see it.

29 times per hour?

Goodridge says workers generally need to wash their hands frequently, especially after touching something that may contaminate them, or after using the washrooms.

He cites one U.S. study that suggests restaurant employees should wash their hands 29 times per hour. "So, you tell me," he chuckles.  

Goodridge admits the critical things, like handwashing, are more difficult to observe and "are the ones that tend to be missed." But he says that handwashing is right at the top of the critical list.

"They should stay long enough to see all the critical points in the inspection are being met, at the least," says Goodridge.

More than a quarter of the city's restaurants also received "not observed" status for proper sanitizing and storing of cloths used for wiping tables and dirty dishes, a non-critical item on the list.

Food safety inspectors also did not observe the cleanliness of several washrooms in Yellowknife restaurants and food facilities, checking to see if they're being constructed, cleaned and properly supplied with hygiene products like soap and toilet paper.

Despite the several items "not observed" during the inspection, the N.W.T. government says the territory's inspection data is still reliable.

Inspections differ by region

Inspection systems and standards vary by region.

In Ottawa, every worker "that handles or comes in contact with food or with any utensil used… must ensure hands are washed before commencing or resuming work," according to Toni D'Ettorre, a food safety supervisor for Ottawa's environmental health department.

Ottawa's inspectors also have a "not observed" status in their compliance legend. The city wouldn't disclose how often their inspectors use that, but said that their rules for handwashing are rigid.

"If an inspector walks in, and the chef... proceeded to prepare food without washing their hands, yes that would be a [violation]," says D'Ettorre.

But D'Ettorre also said that not everything can be observed during an inspection.