Food safety: 5 things to watch out for next time you dine out

Before you even get a table at a restaurant, there are often signs that can warn you when there are problems with food handling and cleanliness - if you know what to look for.

Tips from a restaurant inspection expert to help you keep you healthy

Some Canadian jurisdictions post restaurant inspection results online, but it’s up to consumers to look restaurants up individually and try to understand the results. Others do not make inspection reports public at all. (CBC)

Canadians love to eat out. But getting a reservation is sometimes a lot easier than finding out how a restaurant fared on its last public health inspection.

CBC's Marketplace crunched the data from almost 5,000 public health restaurant inspections for national chains in five Canadian cities. Watch the full investigation, Canada's Restaurant Secrets, to see how your favourite coffee shops, fast food and family dining restaurants performed.

Before you even get a table, there are signs of what's happening behind the scenes, says Jim Chan, a retired public health inspector for Toronto Public Health. He spent 36 years making sure restaurants follow the rules so diners don't get sick.

Chan shares his restaurant red flags, so you can spot possible violations the next time you dine out.

1. Audit the entrance

First impressions can be meaningful, especially if you're scoping out a restaurant. Chan always checks to see if the menus are clean, or if they're covered in the sticky mess of previous patrons. Menus may often get overlooked when it comes to cleaning, but the attention to detail may speak to the restaurant's general attitude to cleanliness.


Join Jim Chan and Marketplace co-host Erica Johnson for a web chat about restaurant cleanliness and food safety on Thursday April 10 at 7 p.m.

Watch the full Marketplace episode, Canada's Restaurant Secrets, Friday at 8:00 p.m. (8:30 p.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador) on CBC Television.

Follow the conversation on Twitter by using the hashtag #restaurantsecrets.

Are there mints near the front door? If they aren't individually wrapped, there should be a spoon, so germs from people's hands don't cross-contaminate the candy. This small sign can show that a restaurant knows the rules.

Chan also says to pay attention to the way the restaurant smells. Any whiff of garbage is an obvious sign, but if you smell stale grease, that could mean that they're not cleaning and sanitizing the place properly.

The last thing to look at before you grab a table: The servers. They're the ones who will be handing you your food, so Chan says to take a close look at them. Are their fingernails clean? If they're touching their face, hair or mouth a lot or biting their nails, find a different place to dine.

2. Check out the bar

Waiting for a table at the bar? There are a lot of signs to look for that can tell you how seriously the restaurant takes your health and well-being.

A lot of people don't think of the bartender as a food handler, says Chan, but bad bartender behaviour can spread germs easily.

Chan advises watching to see that the bartender washes his or her hands between handling money and food items, like a lemon-wedge garnish. Are milk and juice left out or put back in the fridge? And watch the ice that's destined for your drink. Nothing should be stored in beverage ice - including the ice scoop - because that ice can be a hotbed for cross-contamination, which means that drink could give you more than a hangover.

3. Scout the washrooms

You may not be allowed to snoop in the kitchen, but scoping out the washroom may yield important clues about how clean the rest of the restaurant is, says Chan.

He advises diners to check to see if the washroom has hot water, soap and paper towels. It's a good sign if the handwashing station in the kitchen is also properly outfitted.

Your nose will also tell you a lot. If the washroom smells like sewage, there could be critical drainage problems in the kitchen as well.

4. Eye the open kitchen

Open kitchens are more than trendy: They give potential customers a great peek into what's not on the menu.

Beyond general cleanliness, Chan suggests looking to see that ingredients such as eggs, milk and meat aren't just left sitting out when they should be refrigerated.

Chan also says to watch to make sure that employees wash their hands properly between tasks. Here's how to tell: They should spend about 15 to 20 seconds at the sink. (Hum the song Happy Birthday to yourself and that's about the right amount of time, says Chan.) They should use soap, and always dry their hands with a paper towel - never on their apron.

5. Look at the cutlery

It may seem like a convenience, but a dishwasher can play an important role in food safety, because cutlery, plates and glassware get sanitized with hot water that kills wayward germs.

So if the cutlery and glasses have dried-on food, fingerprints, grease smudges or lipstick marks, it can mean that there's a breakdown in a key cleaning system. And if the marks from other diners are visible, just imagine what they might have left behind that you can't see.


Megan Griffith-Greene is the digital producer at CBC's weekly consumer news program Marketplace. Find out more at