For 36 years, the city’s head of food safety has been keeping Torontonians as safe and salmonella-free as possible. He helped us maintain our cool during SARS, lead us through listeria, and implemented the DineSafe program that allows restaurant-goers to conduct their own background checks. Before his October retirement, we sat down with Jim Chan to discuss dining in Toronto: the good, the bad, and the cronut.
Let’s talk cronut. Did you eat one or is that the kind of high-risk food that someone in your profession avoids?
Ha! No, I didn’t eat one. That type of food has a little bit too much grease and calories for guys like me. I’m generally very careful about what I eat—I avoid anything with too much sodium or fat or preservatives.
What was the cronut scandal like from a behind-the-scenes perspective?
It was very intense. We get quite a number of calls on a regular basis, but when you start seeing cases relating to the same restaurant or a similar source of food, it starts to get more urgent. As health inspectors, we are trained to react and investigate reports of an outbreak within 24 hours. We received notification from EMS that 11 or 12 people became ill while they were still on the CNE grounds.
Were you worried about fatalities?
Oh, yeah. That’s always on our minds when we receive outbreak reports.
Was it frustrating to have such a press-friendly headline? Poisonous cronuts sounds like something out of a Tim Burton movie.
Yes and there was also the fact that it was a specialty item at the CNE, [which] is a national treasure. It did get a lot of attention, but for us, it doesn’t matter if it’s a chicken burger or a cronut—my job is the same.
Would you say the average Torontonian is too paranoid or not paranoid enough about food safety?
I really wouldn’t use the word paranoid. The public is concerned about food safety, and I think that’s a good thing. If people aren’t concerned, mistakes get made and people become ill.
What is one of the greatest misconceptions that you deal with?
I guess the idea that dining out is the more dangerous form of eating. We initiated the DineSafe program in 2001, and for the past few years we’ve had a 92 per cent compliance rate. The incidence of food poisoning resulting from food prepared at home is much greater.
What should at-home diners be more aware of?
When I give presentations, I’m always surprised how many people don’t know the temperature of their at home fridge, which should be four degrees Celsius or colder. They don’t have a thermometer and so it’s hard to regulate. Refrigerators that aren’t adequately cold are where you get into trouble with meat and dairy products. If everyone could just fix this one thing, there would be a huge improvement in terms of safety.
Toronto Public Health turns 100 this year. What were the most pressing safety concerns back in 1913?
At that time, drinking raw milk was a big issue. Health inspectors back then did a lot of checks on food coming from farms and into the city—they were looking for spoilage or contamination. There’s a famous photo from that era where you see an inspector dumping a huge container of milk into the sewer outside of Union Station.
How has the job changed since you started in 1977?
I still remember the first office I worked in—it had only three phones and that was our only way of communicating with the public. We used to go into the office every day and fight over the phone. After that, we’d go out into the district and there was no way to get in contact with us. We’d have to call the office to pick up messages. Technology has changed our jobs so much. We get complaints instantly from the public. They’ll see a cockroach at a restaurant, email a photo, and then expect us to take action in five minutes.
I’m guessing not every cockroach can be a red alert.
Our responders are as prompt as possible, but I try to remind people that we are not a 911 service.
Okay, let’s discuss your own habits. Are you someone who cleans the top of a can of soup before you open it?
Just from a basic hygiene point of view, I will give it a good rinse with hot water. Canned goods can sit on shelves for a long time. I also clean my can opener on a regular basis.
Do you carry hand sanitizer?
I do. Hand washing isn’t something you can do whenever you want to. I often end up eating in my car, so I will use it then or if I’m shaking a lot of hands.
Do you sit on toilet seats in restaurants?
As long as I don’t see any reason to think the area is not reasonably maintained, then yes, I will. If there are any issues—not enough soap or if it smells—I will let the manager know, just as a customer.
So you don’t mention that, oh, by the way, you’re the Toronto health inspector?
No. If I have a complaint, I will make it anonymously like everyone else.
Book on your nightstand?
The Control of Communicable Disease.
Favourite international cuisine?
My mother’s Malaysian chicken curry, and haggis.
Chocolate or vanilla.
Who would play you in a movie?
[Something by] Bob Dylan or Peter, Paul and Mary.