Cleaning cloths, food storage top violations at Edmonton-area restaurants

Almost one in five of all restaurant violations in the Edmonton area in 2018 were related to cleaning cloths, according to restaurant inspection data collected by CBC News.

CBC News analysis examines online restaurant inspection reports from 2018

Cleaning cloths and food storage are some of the most frequent violations found at Edmonton restaurants. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Of all restaurant violations in the Edmonton area in 2018, almost one in five were related to cleaning cloths, according to restaurant inspection data analyzed by CBC News.

Poor practices around cleaning cloths was the most frequent violation — at 18 per cent — at the 1,656 Edmonton and area restaurants inspected in the first 11 months of 2018.

"That's one violation that may have many applications," said Debra Langier-Blythe, who was a public health inspector with Alberta Health Services for more than 30 years.

"If I cited that, that means the concentration of the sanitizer is improper for the cleaning cloths, they were improperly being stored out on a counter instead of inside the cleaning cloth bucket or it could mean they're using the same cleaning cloths for several purposes like raw meat and other [food]."

More than 12,500 violations were found at restaurants between Jan. 1 and Dec. 1, 2018, in the Edmonton zone which includes Edmonton, St. Albert, Sherwood Park, Beaumont, Leduc, Devon, Thorsby, Stony Plain, Spruce Grove, Morinville, Gibbons, Fort Saskatchewan and Evansburg.

Failure to keep food at the proper temperature, refrigeration storage issues and thawing of food were other frequently cited violations. 

"Temperature is probably, in my mind, one of the most important ways to prevent food-borne illness," Langier-Blythe said. "The second important thing, believe it or not, is hygiene. 

"If you're not washing your hands between handling raw meat and grabbing vegetables, there's that potential for cross-contamination."

Other top 10 violations are related to the physical space of the restaurant. Mechanical procedures accounted for roughly seven per cent, or nearly 900 incidents. Those violations could include problems with equipment such as broken dishwashers, explained Langier-Blythe.

Temperature is probably, in my mind, one of the most important ways to prevent food-borne illness.- Debra Langier-Blythe, former public health inspector

Dana Gibson, director of business development for the Centre for Culinary Innovation at NAIT, said many of the infractions are similar to what people do in their own homes.

"I think it's a bit of human nature to be like, 'Oh man, I got to clean this, I'm just going to grab this cloth and I'm not going to think about it and to take the extra step and go sanitize it.' I think it's human nature to be a bit lazy," Gibson said.

If a restaurant is deemed unsafe for the public, inspectors have the authority to issue work orders, which could temporarily shutdown a restaurant or close it permanently due to health concerns. 

There were 13 active work orders from 2018 listed on Alberta Health Services' website as of Jan. 23.

Although work orders are issued, Dr. Kathryn Koliaska, a medical officer of health with Alberta Health Services, said inspectors try to work with restaurant operators first to inform on best practices.

"There's definitely an educational component as well as the violation list," Koliaska said. "Our inspectors do get to know the operators and they're able to provide them with that education."

Revamped system

The Edmonton-and-area restaurant inspection program has undergone a major shift within the last year.

Inspection reports can be found on a revamped website, similar to Calgary's system, Koliaska said.

A red brick building with a sign that reads 'Alberta Health Services.'
Alberta Health Services revamped their online restaurant inspection database in 2018 for the Edmonton area. (David Bajer/CBC)

"We're doing everything we can, as we are shifting our system, to become more user-friendly but there's certainly more improvements that we have in mind and we'd like to make as we're able," she said. 

Inspection reports for food trucks and farmers markets in the Edmonton region can also now be found online. 

The digital inspection system places a new focus on inspectors, Koliaska said.

Instead of targeting a daily total number of inspections, the approach now is all about "risk assessment," AHS said in a statement. The shift means inspectors are visiting "high risk facilities," which prepare raw meat for example, more frequently compared to lower risk food establishments which might prepare very little on site.

That will actually make a bigger difference, Koliaska said.

"If you're solving and preventing a really big problem, it might take you more time," she said. "We're making sure we're putting our energies toward the places that have a lot going on and potential for a lot more to go wrong."

Ultimately it's about working with restaurant operators to help them understand, Koliaska said. 

"It's not really as important about the number of violations as to exactly what they are and what needs to be done to correct them."

With files from Robson Fletcher