Food safety violations climb at Ottawa seniors' homes
Food-related health code violations more than doubled in 3 years at city's privately-run residences
On a sunny morning in June 2016, Joanne Lalonde went to visit her 81-year-old mother at her Orléans retirement home.
As breakfast was being served to the residents, Lalonde watched in horror as her mom, Rhealla Daoust, bit into an odd-looking piece of toast.
The bread was green with mould.
"We had to eat, so we took the [food]," said Daoust, who suffers from dementia.
"I was livid. That was the last straw," Lalonde recalled.
CBC was unable to confirm the story with the privately-run home, so is not naming the facility.
Lalonde said she filed a complaint with management, but it went unanswered. Finally, in August 2016, she decided to move her mother to another home.
"That's not what I wanted for my mother," Lalonde said. "Why would you put somebody through this?"
Lalonde's experience is surprisingly common. The number of food-related health code violations in Ottawa retirement homes last year was the highest ever recorded, according to data obtained by CBC News through access to information.
All told, the city's 80 privately-run retirement homes committed 345 violations in 2017, up from 240 the previous year, and more than double the number of infractions in 2015.
On average, that's about nine violations per home. One retirement residence, Lynwood Park Lodge, accumulated 41 infractions over the three-year period.
Some of the more serious infractions include raw meat sitting out for too long, rodent infestations and employees failing to wash their hands after going to the bathroom.
Ottawa Public Health's (OPH) inspection program is responsible for making sure kitchens inside retirement homes are up to provincial standards. Inspectors visit a minimum of three times per year, with additional visits if complaints are filed.
If a violation is found, an inspector can label the incident as non-critical, semi-critical or critical.
Critical infractions could lead to food-borne illnesses including salmonella, E. coli and listeria.
Undercooking meat, contaminating cooked food with raw food, and insect or rodent contact are considered critical infractions, according to OPH.
Non-critical violations concern the overall sanitary condition of a home's food service, but do not contribute to illness. Unclean utensils, dirty dish water and overflowing garbage containers are considered non-critical.
If a critical infraction isn't corrected immediately, OPH takes action. If an immediate health hazard goes unaddressed, the health agency can order the closure of a facility.
That happens rarely: one-third of the violations recorded over the past three years were deemed critical, but no retirement homes were shut down during that period.
"Inspectors conduct thorough inspections," said Sherry Beadle, manager of the public health inspection program at OPH. "The regulations are applied broadly."
Building rapport with home managers, educating kitchen staff and responding quickly to client complaints are key to ensuring the care and safety of such a "high-risk" demographic, Beadle said.
Staff tired, overworked
It's not just inspectors and family members lifting the lid on the unhygienic conditions at some Ottawa seniors homes. Some workers are speaking out, too.
"The staff are overworked," said one current employee whose identity CBC has agreed to protect. "They burn out, they're tired."
When things get busy or staff get sick at the home she works at, the employee said casual workers with little training are called to fill in.
Beadle agreed high staff turnover and inadequate training are a challenge.
"There's a change in staffing that occurs in this industry, so there's always room for education," she said.
CBC News reached out to 19 of the homes named in the data. All either declined an interview request, or did not respond.
However a manager from Revera, which runs 14 homes in Ottawa, issued a statement:
"The health and safety of our residents is our top priority. We work with inspectors in all our residences to ensure that our culinary services meet or exceed all food safety standards and regulations," Kenney Goldman, vice-president of culinary services at Revera, wrote in an email.
'Go out and visit'
After witnessing her mother endure mouldy food, Joanne Lalonde has this advice for anyone choosing a retirement home for their parents:
"Go out and visit, don't just take the first one and say, 'This is going to be a great place.' Speak to the management, get tours done, have a meal and sit in the dining room. You have to check all this out."
Still, Lalonde, who worked at a retirement residence for two years, said she's learned that some problems aren't always obvious.
"I've seen a lot. This is probably why today I'm on top of things," she cautioned. "It scares me to death."