In the past decade, Toronto’s food-safety experts have conducted over 250,000 inspections of restaurants, cafeterias, coffee shops and take-out joints all over the city. Here’s what we’ve learned about where we eat.
It doesn’t matter if it’s the corner store where you buy your milk, the cheap Indian place that hands you a takeout container filled with butter-chicken roti or the pricey but so-good tapas restaurant on the other side of town. Wherever you go to get your food in this city, Toronto Public Health’s food-safety program has been there, too, again and again, ensuring that what you’re eating won’t make you sick—and shutting down places that aren’t doing enough to guarantee you don’t.
Since the program’s inception in 2001, its investigators have conducted 258,302 inspections. The Grid wanted to know how well things were going. We filed a freedom of information request for every inspection that has resulted in either a conditional pass (which earns a restaurant one of those yellow signs you sometimes see, flagging potential health hazards) or a closure (the dreaded red signs, which appear when risks are deemed immediate).
What we got: more dirt on the 17,298 Toronto establishments that prepare and serve your food than the public has ever seen. What we made: a map of everywhere that Toronto Public Health has ordered closed since January 4, 2001—and that’s just the start.
HOW DO I USE THE MAP? Easy: just zoom in and click on any coloured dot to view the details of any closure—or, for some addresses, multiple closures—as well as a business’s more recent food-safety inspection history from DineSafe, Toronto Public Health’s disclosure program. The map displays every closed notice from January 4, 2001, all the way up to December 31, 2011.
WAIT, WHAT HAPPENED IN 2001? Amalgamation—that’s what. The food-safety program as we know it today is the result of several other similar programs across Toronto that existed before January 2001 being amalgamated and standardized.
WHAT’S UP WITH CHINATOWN AND KENSINGTON MARKET? Of the 372 closure notices issued, nearly 100 were for businesses operating between College, Queen West, McCaul, and Bathurst. We asked food-safety head Jim Chan what was going on (our full interview with him is here), and he told us: there are lots of old buildings, and lots of food premises in very close proximity. “It’s the responsibility of the operator to create an environment that is not a health hazard,” Chan told us, “but it’s easier to maintain a restaurant in Yorkdale than to maintain the same business at Spadina and Dundas.”
HOW MANY PLACES ACTUALLY GET CLOSED? Thankfully, not that many. Of the 258,302 inspections conducted between January 4, 2001, and December 31, 2011, 8.60% resulted in either a conditional pass or a closure notice, and only 0.14% resulted in a closure notice outright. The compliance rate—the percentage of premises Toronto-wide that don’t have any problems for an entire year—was at 91.5% for 2010, way up from 78.5% for the program’s first year, 2001.
HOW BAD DO THINGS HAVE TO GET FOR SOMEWHERE TO BE ORDERED SHUT? Pretty bad, in the eyes of the health inspector checking it out. Jim Chan told us more about what inspectors are looking for, and we went inside Chinatown staple Mother’s Dumplings during a recent inspection to see for ourselves. (Don’t worry: it passed with flying colours.)
IF A RESTAURANT GETS CLOSED, DOES THAT MEAN I SHOULDN’T EAT THERE? Toronto Public Health shuts a restaurant down only when they deem that it staying open would pose an immediate hazard to the public’s health. But after being closed, most premises pass a subsequent re-inspection and re-open, which means that, by the food-safety program’s high standards, it’s safe to eat there. Only a very small number of food premises have been closed for good following Toronto Public Health inspections, and that’s only when their licences are taken away: a year and a half ago, The Green Room, famously, was one of them. (It’s since re-opened with the same name, but new owners.)
WHAT SHOULD I LOOK OUT FOR WHEN I’M GETTING FOOD? We asked Jim Chan that one, too.
WHERE CAN I GET ALL THAT DATA YOU GOT? You can download the full set of data we obtained from Toronto Public Health—which includes the detailed results of every inspection that resulted in either a conditional pass or closed notice—right here [10.7MB, .XLS]. Want to use that data for research, reporting, or to make your own project? Go for it: all we ask is that if you do use it, you credit The Grid/Toronto Public Health for the data, and link back to this page. (If you mention it in print, please use thegrid.to/knowwhereyoueat as the URL.)