Seinfeld fans will remember the episode when Jerry watches in horror as a pizza server breezes out of the bathroom without washing his hands, then offers the comedian a slice. While the exchange was hilarious on screen, the real-life implications could be very serious. After all, bacteria from unwashed hands can create a life-or-death issue, especially for children, senior citizens, pregnant women or the immuno-suppressed.
Safety can easily be compromised when shortcuts are taken with food preparation. Look no further than the April CBC Marketplace episode, which reported that one in four food-safety inspections at national chain restaurants had at least one major violation. At the time, Restaurants Canada (formerly the CRFA) responded on behalf of its members. “Restaurants and inspectors work hand in hand to ensure effective food-safety systems in every community. Restaurants Canada will continue to work with public health authorities in every community to ensure the safety of restaurant customers,” said Garth Whyte, president and CEO, pointing to the organization’s National Food Safety Training Program and its Food Safety Code of Practice.
Marc Caira, president and CEO of Tim Hortons, also responded to a question about the Marketplace episode in Kostuch Media’s latest instalment of its Icons and Innovators Breakfast series. “We have a very rigorous program at Tim Hortons; we take it very seriously. We have our own special teams that audit these things, so we have the tools in place,” he said. He added: “If you’re looking to find something, you will find something. But I will tell you based on my own personal experience that we have one of the safest, one of the cleanest environments in our restaurants in the world, and we should be very proud of it.”
It’s an important topic, but if there’s a problem it can take more than a gentle nudge to revise the food-prep patterns of an entire operation. Paul Medeiros, director of Quality Assurance at Mississauga, Ont.-based Compass Group Canada, compares a restaurant’s food-prep patterns to a toboggan run in deep snow. “Over time, those behaviours and beliefs get so entrenched that it takes a lot of effort to change, and, like a fresh path through the snow, it’s very easy to slide back into the original path,” says Medeiros. “At Compass, we’re aware that our associates each have their own food-safety ‘toboggan runs.’” A big part of his job is making sure everyone follows the right path by adhering to stringent hiring practices, diligent supervision and consistent food-safety messaging.
However, Mike Byerley, of Michael Byerley Consulting Inc. in Mississauga, Ont., says keeping a restaurant operation safe is easier said than done, especially when it entails monitoring franchises across a country that doesn’t have a national food-safety policy. “It becomes confusing and tough to manage 10 different sets of provincial standards as well as those standards set out by the three territories,” he explains, noting that while Ontario has clear provincial legislation, individual municipal health Boards may comply with the legislation differently. “Toronto Public Health is particularly strict, which is great, but other health Boards are interpreting the law however they please, and there’s little to stop them from doing that,” he adds.
At the Gormley, Ont.-based Druxy’s chain of deli-inspired restaurants, web-based programs have streamlined food-safety training among managers and franchisees. “We offer an interactive program for employees, which [covers] the essentials, like cleaning, sanitation, hand-washing and understanding government regulations,” explains Peter Druxerman, VP of Marketing. “This gives every staff a wonderful, consistent base from which to operate.” Druxerman then transitions his staff to a hands-on training follow-up session. Every franchise manager and owner is required to take this course and pass their learnings on to their workers. It’s important to note that this online training does not grant the Public Health Board certification that is required of at least one worker per shift (that certification is currently achieved through local public health offices or authorized third-party certification companies). Druxerman is in the process of developing a more extensive online training program that would grant the official certification. Druxy’s ensures the enforcement of food-safety standards by bringing in Noraxx Inspections Inc., a third-party organization in Mississauga, Ont., which is responsible for routinely inspecting each store in the chain four times a year. “This gives our company a much more in-depth review of problems we need to address,” says Druxerman. What’s great is that Noraxx includes photos in its reports and then goes through them with each franchise owner, explaining food-safety deficits specific to each individual operation. This gives the information needed to target future food-training sessions to a particular restaurant’s weak spots. A self-audit is also a good idea. Tim Hortons’ executives equip franchise managers with a self-audit checklist to help prevent food-safety hazards that recur in especially busy operations where staff turnover can be high. “The self-audits assist our restaurants in being proactive in the time between corporate audits and Health Department inspections,” says Katherine Galley, public affairs specialist for Tim Hortons. Conducted twice a year, the chain’s self-audits catch small staff mistakes so they can be rectified before they become bigger problems.
Such problems could be as small as employees forgetting to wash their hands, a simple procedure that can improve a food-safety audit score significantly. “Gloves can offer a false sense of security,” says Jim Kostuch, VP and CEO of TrainCan Inc., Kostuch Media’s Toronto-based sister company that specializes in food-safety training. “I’ve seen employees take money from a person or touch their hair and then put on gloves. It’s essential that your hands be 100-per-cent clean first.” Kostuch emphasizes that personal hygiene is imperative, too, adding that employees should wear hairnets and uniforms.
Al Brewer, director and senior food-safety specialist at Noraxx Inspections Inc., admits it can be difficult to maintain proper training of restaurant staff. “There’s so much turnover in the foodservice industry staff-wise; the door is always revolving,” he explains. “We need a push from Public Health and the government to enforce more mandatory requirements. It’s the only thing that can really drastically help the food industry.” Brewer believes the problem is individual operators and the lack of enforcement of food-handling guidelines on the frontlines of the foodservice industry. “You have people employed who might be thinking, ‘Hey, I’m only getting minimum wage, why should I care about this?’” he says.
As someone who helped manage the Toronto Exhibition’s cronut-burger food-safety crisis last year, Brewer has a suggestion for provincial legislators and food-safety advocates: he recommends every food server get a Public Health Food Handler Certification. “It should be regulated in the same manner that Smart Serve is [regulated],” he says. “[If] you haven’t gone through the Smart Serve Responsible Alcohol Beverage Service Training Program, you don’t get to serve alcohol. The same should go for foodservice.”