Food kept too warm or too cold, dirty utensils and one live animal have all been found in Windsor and Essex County restaurants within the past year, according to a CBC News analysis of Windsor-Essex County Health Unit reports.

Documents provided to CBC News by the health unit show 1,795 health and safety infractions at 540 locations where food was served between Oct. 2014 and 2015.  

The health unit regularly inspects restaurants and places where food is served in Windsor and Essex County. The frequency of the inspections depends on how high the risk is for food contamination at each place.  According to the health unit, a full-service restaurant is inspected at least three times a year.

Enforcers and educators 

"We are enforcers, but we're trying to educate first," Elaine Bennett, a public health inspector with the health unit said in an interview with CBC News. "We're working with people to make sure they're not causing food-borne illness in the community."

Bennett has been a health inspector for the past 15 years.

"Ultimately I'm working for the public to make sure their dining experience is not going to send them to the hospital," she said.  

Two locations closed

Two locations — one restaurant and one kitchen serving two restaurants — have been closed due to health concerns within the last year. One restaurant closed due to a lack of hot water and another because of a cockroach infestation.  

The health unit says any restaurant open for business is safe, but infractions often represent a potential for illness when dining out.

Dirty walls, floors and equipment made up a total of 487 infractions. Other issues include dirty wiping cloths, improper storage of toxic materials and improper food storage.  

But 108 infractions — almost 6 per cent of the total — had to do with foods being stored either too warm or too cold, which have the potential for the most severe health issues, Bennett said.  

"When we look at food kept above 4 C, maybe 12 C for example, we're looking at discarding the food product," Bennett said. "I have to let my operators know I'm working with them, but I'm working for the public and making sure the food they eat is safe." 

Steve Meehan, the executive chef at the St. Clair College Centre for the Arts, said there needs to be several controls and checks in a restaurant to keep food safe.

Steve Meehan

Steve Meehan works with students and employees in the kitchen at the St. Clair College Centre for the arts. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

"If you leave cleaning until the end of the week or the end of the month, it's going to lead to issues. Whether it be spoiled food or a dirty facility," Meehan said. "We do cleaning here daily."  

CBC News joined Bennett and Meehan on a walk-though of the kitchen at the St. Clair College Centre for the Arts in Windsor.

Meehan's kitchen did not have any infractions, but Bennett pointed out what she often looks for during an inspection and how she determines whether the food being served is safe.    

Food temperature

Bennett said food temperature is critical when she goes through an inspection. During her visit, she inspects the temperature of individual food as well as the temperatures of storage units, like coolers.

"We want to ensure temperature controls are in place," Bennett said.

At the St. Clair Centre for the Arts, Bennett looked at the temperature of cheese and chili stored in separate coolers. Both registered cooler than the standard of 4 C.   

Cleaning and sanitizing

Clean equipment may mean a clean restaurant, Bennett said. Often, restaurants may leave a set of tongs near a stove during a busy period. Once the lunch or dinner rush is over, they need to be cleaned and put away.

"You want to make sure the operators are working with clean utensils on a regular basis," Bennett said.

If dirty equipment is lying around, it may signal a lack of attention to detail that may spill over into how food is handled. 

At the St. Clair Centre for the Arts, Bennett said all washing procedures were in place and there didn't appear to be any dirty equipment lying around.

Personal hygiene

Some of the worst food borne illnesses can come from the person handling your food, Bennett said. An open cut or bacteria from a cold can cause illness in as little as one day.

An improper hand washing infraction is one of the more serious health and safety offences, ranked seven out of a possible 10 in terms of seriousness.  

Workers at the St. Clair College Centre for the Arts all demonstrated good washing habits and passed Bennett's inspection. 

To make sure you're going to a reputable restaurant, Bennett recommends searching the health unit's online database for individual restaurants' inspection reports. 

"It gives you a snapshot in time of what the inspector saw when they last did an inspection," Bennett said. 

Want to see the infractions over the past year? See the interactive chart below. 

With files from Aadel Haleem