Special Report: Dishing out the dirt
Published Thursday, November 11, 2010 8:00PM EST
Every day tens of thousands of Montrealers dine in the city's eateries, without ever knowing if what goes on behind the scenes is clean and safe.
In other cities, the trend is to tell patrons exactly what they're getting before they walk in the door, but in Quebec, a restaurant's recent track record is private.
One repeat offender is Chinatown's Restaurant Hong Kong, which has been ordered to pay nearly $30,000 in fines over the past three years.
The restaurant was repeatedly fined for storing food at the wrong temperature, which can cause bacteria to multiply and lead to food poisoning.
The owner would not talk to CTV about the issue.
In 2009 1500 Quebecers came down with food poisoning so severe they required medical attention, half of those cases after dining out.
Many more cases of food poisoning, which can manifest as nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, or something more severe, go unreported.
Kelly Johnson was revolted at what used to be her favourite sushi restaurant.
"I sat down and I ordered and I saw what I thought were grains of rice underneath the table, and they started moving, and I figured out they were maggots," said Johnson.
She filed a complaint on Montreal's food inspection website, but more than a year later the restaurant is still open, and she never heard from inspectors.
Under its own rules, the city should have called her to follow up her complaint.
Finding out if restaurants have a clean bill of health is extraordinarily difficult.
Quebec's access to information laws block the public from seeing any inspection results for a full year, even when a city shuts down a restaurant temporarily for violations.
20 times this year Montreal inspectors have ordered restaurants to close and clean up, but the reasons are marked private.
Restaurants that break safety rules are eventually posted on the city's website, but only months after inspectors find a problem.
The head of food inspection for the city says Montrealers need not worry.
Christine Vezina says restaurants deemed dangerous are shut down for as long as it takes them to clean up.
"We don't reopen until the condition is acceptable again," said Vezina.
Critics say Montrealers should have the right to know which restaurants are clean, and which are filthy, before they sit down to eat.
Many other cities do just that.
In Toronto, signs are colour coded green, yellow or red so customers know if a restaurant passed its latest inspection, had some errors, or is closed for being filthy.
Since the program's creation in 2001, Public Health Manager Jim Chan says restaurant compliance has jumped from 50 to 90 per cent, and that the transmission of foodborne illness had dropped by 30 per cent.
"I strongly recommend that other provinces can also look into similar types of disclosure programs that also improve transparency of the health unit while conducting food safety inspections," said Chan.
Ottawa has also joined the tell-all trend, and its health inspectors are armed with handheld computers.
The reports are uploaded to the city's website within 48 hours.
"The accountability is there for us, as well as for the restaurant operator," said Ottawa's Sherry Beadle.
In its first month in operation, Ottawa's clean dining website was visited 25,000 times by curious diners, and that number is expected to grow by leaps and bounds as Ottawa makes the site easier to access on smartphones.
In Quebec, citizen's action group Montreal Ouvert wants to put transparency and accountablity on the political agenda.
"That would help promote clean restaurants in Montreal with a self-policing sort of system," said Jonathan Brun.
Until then, the only consolation for Montreal diners is that serial offenders get closed.