Written by: Heather Clemenceau
The summer of 2012 was one where activists demonstrated almost every week against horsemeat restaurant La Palette on Queen St. West. During that time we started paying attention to La Palette’s food safety evaluations under the “DineSafe” program operated by Toronto Public Health. The program features an Interactive map of every restaurant, grocery, cafe and take-out joint that’s been closed by Toronto Public Health since 2001. If we hadn’t been watching, we would have missed a wonderful exercise in schadenfraude – partway through our demonstrations we read on the DineSafe website that Palette received a “conditional pass,” results of which are in the public domain. Restaurants are required to prominently display this information on the front of their entrances (known to Torontonians as “Scores on Doors”), and when arriving one evening to protest, we were amused to see that a potted plant
appeared out of nowhere and partially obscured the signage. La Palette appears to be a restaurant that’s now regularly considered to be “medium/high risk” by the Health Department since in 2014, two years after that conditional pass, they are still being audited 3 times a year. That in itself is probably not atypical for a resto serving multiple meat dishes, some of which are served raw, but the findings are interesting none the less.
Jim Chan, head of Toronto Public Health’s food-safety program, explains that Toronto Public Health uses a risk-assessment system to figure out how frequently to inspect any given establishment, whether it’s a hot dog cart or a hotel kitchen. Here’s how it works:
HIGH-RISK PREMISES (Inspected three times a year or more): “The more complicated the food preparation, the higher the food-safety risk. “Think of a restaurant with multiple items on the menu, with raw food and ready-to-eat food,” says Chan. “Think of a hospital kitchen, or a long-term-care-home kitchen. If these operators are not careful, it increases the risk of food poisoning.”
MEDIUM-RISK PREMISES (Inspected twice a year or more): “Lots of people think McDonald’s would be high-risk, but it’s medium-risk,” says Chan. “Everything is generic: You have frozen patties, and there’s one way to cook them and one way to serve them.” Other medium-risk establishments: most pizza places, bakeries, sub shops and cafés.
LOW-RISK PREMISES (Inspected once a year or more): “When you look at a 7-Eleven, where all they have is a few hot dogs on a rotisserie, or they sell chips, pre-packaged sandwiches, stuff like that, they’ll be low-risk.” Ditto for Starbucks and most convenience stores.”
A typical tactic of La Palette during protests was to go out into the street and start serving raw horsemeat to passersby. In some respects this isn’t entirely a bad thing – when they give away food it means they aren’t selling it. But whenever I think about eating raw meat, I feel an eating disorder coming on. I get a little panicky when I think that people, perhaps unknowingly, are eating food I’ve been taught to avoid – even moreso because it’s horsemeat. Personally I don’t get it. It is clear that there are absolutely no critical control points to minimize the risk of infection with the consumption of raw horsemeat.
Here’s last year’s summary of audit findings served up online along with an inspection from 2015 (some of which are highlighted as “significant”). All findings seem confined to washing, sanitizing, preventing contamination of foods/surfaces – all actions you’d want a restaurant to have figured out after years in operation and several previous cautions by Toronto Public Health.
Click to pause slideshow
- OPERATE FOOD PREMISE – FAIL TO EQUIP FACILITY WITH WASTE RECEPTACLE O. REG 562/90 SEC. 68(3)(D)
- Operator fail to properly wash equipment (mutiple observations)
- Operator fail to properly wash surfaces in rooms (multiple observations)
- Operator fail to sanitize garbage containers as required
- OPERATOR FAIL TO ENSURE CAP WILL PREVENT CONTAMINATION OR ADULTERATION O. REG 562/90 SEC. 59(C)(II)
- OPERATOR FAIL TO ENSURE SINGLE-SERVICE CONTAINERS KEPT IN MANNER PREVENTING CONTAMINATION O. REG 562/90 SEC. 59(D)
- OPERATOR FAIL TO ENSURE COVER WILL PREVENT CONTAMINATION OR ADULTERATION O. REG 562/90 SEC. 59(C)(II)
- FAIL TO PROVIDE THERMOMETER IN STORAGE COMPARTMENT O. REG 562/90 SEC. 21
None of the above issues mean that La Palette will get anything less than a green “Pass” evaluation, and unless a diner takes the time to look up the last audit on the DineSafe website they will not be aware of the individual infractions. Since the inception of the program however, only 4 restaurants in Toronto have actually lost their license.
I doubt that any pretentious, self-indulgent, horse-eating foodies will be tangentially concerned with food hygiene anyway – chefs are some of the least reliable people to ask about safely cooking food to eliminate bacterial (or parasitic) contamination. And trendy executive chefs like former heroin addict Anthony Bourdain have long popularized the idea that eating”good” food needs to involve some element of risk. And raw horsemeat = trichinosis roulette.