Thousands of Manitoba restaurant inspections overdue as nearly 1 in 5 inspector positions vacant
'We're all for anything that makes our patrons safer,' says restaurant association executive director
Thousands of restaurant and care-facility inspections are overdue because nearly one in five of Manitoba's health inspector positions — eight out of 44 — are vacant.
CBC News has learned nearly half of food establishments in the province considered high-risk are overdue for an inspection. High-risk establishments include many restaurants — especially ones where raw meat is handled — facilities that serve vulnerable people, or those that have a history of compliance issues.
Two of the 355 high-risk establishments currently waiting for an inspection are personal care homes, whose residents are vulnerable to foodborne illness.
Nearly half of medium-risk establishments — which include certain restaurants, personal care homes and convenience stores — are overdue for their twice-yearly inspection, as are annual inspections for about a third of low-risk facilities.
In total, more than 3,000 Manitoba establishments are waiting for inspection.
"The importance of routine inspections is just making sure people are following the regulations," said Keith Warriner, a professor of food science at the University of Guelph. "It's just catching the bad players before they do any damage."
More than 2,000 food establishments currently have no assigned inspector, which means they will only be scrutinized if a complaint is made by the public.
Even when the province's public health department is fully staffed, the number of inspectors in the province lags behind other jurisdictions. In total, the province's inspectors must inspect 11,630 food-serving facilities a year. Those include restaurants, bakeries, butcher shops, grocery stores, food trucks, food at fairs and care-facility kitchens.
On average, there is one Manitoba inspector for more than 300 food establishments, at current staffing levels. The average in the Guelph, Ont., health department is one inspector for about 110.
Number of closures 'a damning indictment'
Warriner questions whether Manitoba inspectors have the time to get to the bottom of food safety problems.
"That's a very low number for a very large amount of establishments," he said. "The likelihood is that they can only spend a certain amount of time there. And when they do get there, they're not seeing a true picture."
The president of the union that represents health inspectors says they are very worried about protecting public safety with so many positions unfilled.
"This is one that the government should be front and centre on, and making darn sure that there are enough inspectors out there to keep all Manitobans safe," said Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union.
"I know that there's recruitment and retention problems, trying to maintain and keep the inspectors here. Manitoba doesn't keep up with the rest of the country when it comes to wages."
The provincial health department says it is actively working to hire more inspectors.
"Recruitment remains a challenge as public health inspector training is very specialized and the pool of potential candidates is small, unlike some other professions," a health department spokesperson said in an email.
The spokesperson said the department responds to all complaints on a priority basis.
Despite the vacant positions, inspections still occur and food safety violations are caught. The province makes recent closures and convictions available on its website.
There were 30 restaurant closures last year in Manitoba, a troubling number for Warriner.
"That's a damning indictment because basically, what that's saying is that the food inspectors are probably only getting the tip of the iceberg," Warriner said.
And some restaurants go on to violate the rules again. In the past five years, health inspectors shut down six repeat offenders in Winnipeg.
Cathay House on Regent Avenue was closed three times for health violations. Other establishments were shut down twice.
Joe Chan of Cathay House says health inspectors keep changing their expectations, but he abides by the directives.
"We were operating OK for over a decade, but all of a sudden we are not qualified anymore," said Chan, who says he tightened cleaning procedures and hired an exterminator.
"We never had a food poisoning complaint."
Closures are serious
"A closure is at the point where the health department feels that establishment is no longer safe for handling food and that patron safety has been put at risk," said Manitoba Restaurant & Foodservices Association executive director Shaun Jeffrey.
He says the training and mentorship the association provides have helped ensure only a handful of its members have been caught violating food safety rules. He says his members are open to a system like DineSafe in Toronto, where restaurant inspection results are posted in plain view inside the restaurant.
"We're all for anything that makes our patrons safer," Jeffrey said. "I don't think they'd have a problem at all posting what grade they had, because most of them perform well on a regular basis."
Oh Doughnuts owner Amanda Kinden would welcome posting her inspection results in her bakery, even though the inspections themselves can be nerve-racking.
"It's a bit stressful for sure, because they can make or break you," Kinden said.
"It's just really important that somebody is regularly accountable, and that we're held regularly accountable, for doing things properly.
Repeated restaurant closures in Winnipeg
- Cathay House was closed on May 19, 2016, May 3, 2018, and Oct. 25, 2018.The owner said he has complied with the changes ordered by the health inspector but criticizes the department for changing its standards.
- Dowon Restaurant was closed on Oct. 6, 2015 and July 19, 2017. A translator for the owner said the problems have been dealt with and everything is clean now.
- Lisbon Bakery was closed on March 23, 2015, and July 26, 2018. The owner did not respond to a request for comment.
- Wok and Roll was closed on July 4 and Nov. 14, 2018. A translator for the owner says they have cleaned the restaurant, fixed the dishwasher, bought new food storage bins and have hired an exterminator.
- Summer Palace Chinese Restaurant was closed on Aug. 21, 2014, and July 14, 2016. The owner says the restaurant has passed every inspection since the last closure.
- South Ocean Restaurant was closed on Dec. 4, 2014, June 29, 2016. A waitress who answered the phone says new owners took over the business since the last closure.
With files from Jacques Marcoux