Montreal·Special Report

How safe are your food courts?

Thousands of people pick up breakfast, lunch or dinner in Montreal-area mall food courts every day, packing into the same seats and tables, using the same trays to carry their meals, often within walking distance of public bathrooms and garbage areas. We tested how hygienic it all is.

CBC Montreal Investigates tests for bacteria

CBC Montreal Investigates found plenty of bacteria in a test of food courts around Montreal, but none that could cause serious food-borne illnesses. 2:23

Lachlane Scrase and his three friends spent a part of their Friday afternoon lounging about at the Eaton Centre’s underground food court.

“I dropped my straw on the floor and now I don’t want to pick it up,” he said, when asked his opinion of the environment’s cleanliness.

Every day, around 68,500 people go through the shopping mall. Across the island of Montreal, hundreds pick up breakfast, lunch or dinner in mall food courts, packing in to the same seats and tables, using the same trays to carry their meals, often within walking distance of public bathrooms and garbage areas.

Ever wondered how hygienic it all is?

So did we.

With a team of microbiologists from McGill University, CBC Montreal Investigates/Radio-Canada conducted tests for bacteria on tables, trays and garbage bins at four different shopping centres in the Montreal area: Fairview Pointe-Claire, the Eaton Centre, Complexe Desjardins and Champlain Mall.  

The team found no evidence of bacteria which could cause serious food-borne illnesses such as E.Coli, salmonella or listeria.

Nevertheless, lead microbiologist Lawrence Goodridge said he was surprised at the sheer variety of bacteria present.

For an interactive on the types of bacteria you come into contact with every day, click here:

His team noted some instances of the same bacteria present on both the flaps of garbage bins and trays.

“[It] suggests to me that when the consumers touch the flaps with the trays, this material’s getting on there,” Goodridge said, adding that malls should get rid of bins with flaps on them.

He also said consumers could also help themselves by using disinfectant wipes to clean the tables and trays prior to use. 

Second set of eyes

CBC shared the test results with an independent expert who took no part in the study — Montreal Children’s Hospital epidemiologist Caroline Quach.
Epidemiologist Caroline Quach of the Montreal Children's Hospital, after studying the results of the tests obtained by microbiologists at McGill University, says nothing in them demonstrates any risk to public safety.

Quach said she could find no risk to public safety.

“As long as you don’ in the garbage area, and then you don’t put food in your mouth and don’t touch things, you’re quite safe,” she said.

Quach also said customers at food courts should ideally wash their hands right before eating their food, once they’ve already bought it, paid for it, and set it down at their tables.

Other than Lachlan Scrase’s rather self-evident reluctance to pick up a straw off the floor, others also told CBC they’re careful with how they eat. Scrase’s friend Danielle Walsh pointed out she was always wary of what she did with her fork. “I rest it on the napkin,” she said, adding she would not set it directly on the table.

“[Restaurants] give you a container and the food is in there,” said Abdoullahi Moumouni, adding that should help keep bacteria at bay.

“That depends how clean the container is,” said his friend Asher Sayeed.

Mall response

Guy Charron of Cominar, the company which owns Champlain Mall, said it had tests conducted by accredited, independent laboratory professionals after we reached out to them for comment.

He said test results demonstrated its food court hygiene met all governmental norms.

"Our trays are washed by machine, not by hand," Charron added.

Desjardins and Fairview sent statements, while the Eaton Centre provided information about some of their cleaning standards.

Fairview said its cleaning procedures are handled by “well-established suppliers,” who are required to do check points and regular tests.

“Tables, chairs and sorting stations are washed with a special antibacterial product. As soon as they have been used, tables and trays are cleaned. When people leave a table, it is cleared and immediately cleaned with a special antibacterial product,” Fairview said. “All trays are automatically taken to an area outside of the food court to be disinfected.”

As long as you don’ in the garbage area, and then you don’t put food in your mouth and don’t touch things, you’re quite safe.- Dr. Caroline Quach, epidemiologist, Montreal Children's Hospital 

Desjardins said it maintains cleaning standards that are “above the norm” to limit bacteria proliferation.

The Eaton Centre said all garbage bins are emptied regularly every day and cleaned thoroughly once a day. It also said 3,000 to 5,000 trays are rinsed with hot water daily, and then washed in an automatic machine at 180 F. 

Customers relieved

People attending the Eaton Centre food court were re-assured we found no cause for alarm.

“I think it’s great,” said Sadia Manzo, sipping on some bubble tea as she pored over our results sheet.

“I’ve never noticed a lot of dirt,” said Mohamed Bouhadou, who explained he has been eating at the court regularly for two years.

“Can I pick up my straw off the floor?” Asked Lachlan Scrase.

CBC Montreal Investigates 

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About the Author

Raffy Boudjikanian is a national reporter with CBC in Edmonton. He has also worked in Calgary and Montreal for the public broadcaster.