A visit from your local Health Inspector doesn't have to be stressful. With the correct training and proper in-house food handling procedures, passing a food safety inspection in Canada can be a positive collaboration between foodservice operators and government agencies. This guide has been created to help your business meet or exceed the legal requirements to pass your inspection.
In This Resource
The Canadian Institute of Food Safety (CIFS) is dedicated to reducing food-borne illness. This guide has been created to help your business meet or exceed the requirements of your local Health Inspector. With the correct training and proper in-house food handling procedures, passing a food safety inspection in Canada can be a stress-free collaborative process between food service operators and government agencies.
This guide will teach you the following:
- importance of food safety rules
- purpose of food safety inspections
- process of food safety inspections
- regulations to comply with to avoid violations
- costs to your business for failing an inspection
- importance of professional conduct during the inspection process
It’s important to note that regulations differ depending on the province and municipality. Some municipalities have slightly different rules and processes for food safety inspections.
Why is Food Safety Important?
Every year, 1 in 8 people (4 million Canadians) get sick from contaminated food. Of these, there are about 11,600 hospitalizations and 238 deaths. Unfortunately, food businesses are a major source of food-borne illness outbreaks. A small mistake in food handling or preparation may affect hundreds of customers.
There are significant effects on your business if you cause a food-borne illness outbreak. Not passing a food safety inspection can result in fines or the closure of your business. Your business can be listed on government websites as a health risk to the public, which can severely damage your reputation.
By enforcing food safety rules, training your staff and monitoring food handling activities closely, you can protect yourself, your customers and your business.
Understanding Food Safety Inspections
The purpose of a food safety inspection is to ensure that food is clean and safe for human consumption. Regular inspections minimize the spread of illness and death due to food-borne illness. Restaurant and food service inspections across Canada are generally carried out by these organizations:
- Provincial governments
- Regional health authorities
Depending on the location of your business, the person(s) performing the inspection commonly hold the job title of either Environmental Health Officer (EHO), Public Health Inspector or Inspector. In this guide, we use the term “Inspector” to encompass all titles.
Your food business may be inspected up to three times per year, in addition to being inspected after a customer complaint. Inspection frequency depends on the level of risk the business poses to the public. When determining the risk to the public, authorities typically review your food preparation processes and the volume and type of food your business serves.
Depending on your municipality, the risk is categorized into three levels: high, moderate and low.
High-risk businesses can be inspected up to three times per year. Businesses categorized as high-risk meet one or more of the following criteria:
- serve a high-risk population (e.g. children, the elderly)
- prepare hazardous foods (any food capable of supporting the growth of bacteria) – e.g. meat, poultry, fish, dairy
- handle foods that require many preparation steps
- have been confirmed as a source of a food-borne illness or outbreak from past inspections
Examples of high-risk businesses: full menu restaurants, large banquet facilities, nursing homes, hospitals and daycares.
Moderate-risk businesses may receive an inspection twice per year. Businesses labelled moderate-risk have lower food volume and less food handling than businesses labelled high-risk.
Examples of moderate-risk businesses: fast food restaurants, coffee shops, ice cream parlours and bakeries.
Low-risk businesses may receive an inspection once per year. Low-risk businesses do not serve hazardous foods, or the hazardous foods they serve are pre-packaged before arrival.
Examples of low-risk businesses: convenience stores and food banks.
Note: Some government regulators may classify what is typically a low or moderate-risk business as high-risk. Be prepared for exceptions due to volume and type of food handling.
Inspectors are not required by law to make an appointment before inspecting your business. Although your customers always come first, it’s important to make time for an Inspector. It is recommended that a supervisor, manager or designated employee join the Inspector while they tour your business.
What to Expect During an Inspection
INSPECTORS ARE YOUR ALLIES IN PREVENTING FOOD-BORNE ILLNESS
If you’ve trained your staff and put in place proper food safety handling procedures, then you and your team know what to expect when an Inspector comes calling.
Inspectors have the public’s best interest in mind. However, they understand that closing a business is a serious decision that impacts the livelihood of many employees. Take the approach that an Inspector is here to help your business, not close it.
Train staff to contact the on-duty manager when an Inspector arrives. Upon arrival, it’s acceptable for the manager to ask for the Inspector’s credentials and to place a call to verify those credentials. Ask the Inspector if the purpose of the inspection is due to a customer complaint or if it’s a regular inspection. No matter what the reason for the investigation, never refuse an inspection.
Never offer the Inspector any complimentary meals or beverages from your restaurant or food business. Doing so could be construed as a bribe and compromise your business ethics.
The manager (or designated employee) is welcome to be with the Inspector as he or she walks through the business. Doing so gives the impression that the public’s health and safety is a priority for your business. Take notes throughout the inspection process and ask for advice. The manager may ask questions of the Inspector and politely dispute any violations that they feel are inaccurate. When a disagreement arises, ask the Inspector (in a non-confrontational manner) how they came to their conclusion. Often the discussion can lead to a quick remedy.
Once the inspection is complete, review the inspection report with the Inspector. If there are any violations, understand what they are, what steps need to be taken for corrective action, and in what time frame corrections must be made.
Upon completion of an inspection, your business will either "Pass", "Pass with Conditions" or "Fail".
YOUR BUSINESS PASSES INSPECTION
It’s common for Inspectors to find minor violations. Minor violations pose a minimal health risk to the public. However, they can get worse if not remedied. For example, a small area that’s not cleaned and sanitized properly could grow high levels of dangerous bacteria over time and become a major issue.
What might be seen as minor to you or your staff may be seen as major to a customer. A customer noticing a Food Handler touching raw meat without first washing their hands may be the reason they don’t return. Minor infractions can act as guideposts — these can help you to identify opportunities to improve your food handling practices and even identify ways to enhance customer experience.
Examples of minor violations: Non-food contact surfaces or equipment require cleaning, inadequate ventilation, hair constraints not worn by Food Handlers.
YOUR BUSINESS PASSES INSPECTION WITH CONDITIONS
Repeating minor violations can result in a significant violation. A higher level of violation will be issued if your business is found to be doing the following:
- mishandling food during preparation
- improperly serving food
- incorrectly storing food
Any of the three violations above present a potential health hazard to the public. Corrective action must be taken within a time frame, typically 24-48 hours from being issued the report.
Examples of minor violations that result in receiving a pass with conditions include: refrigeration or cleaning equipment in need of repair, thermometers are not accurate or not provided, washrooms are not clean.
YOUR BUSINESS DOES NOT PASS INSPECTION
If your business is found to be handling food in a manner that poses an immediate health hazard, the business will be closed unless you take immediate corrective action. An Inspector may return daily to ensure your business remains closed to the public.
Examples of violations resulting in your business not passing an inspection: No hot and cold running water, pest infestation, food contamination.
How to Prevent Failing an Inspection
Prevention is your best approach to ensure that your business will pass inspection. Well-trained, informed staff are an asset to your business. To ensure you pass a food safety inspection, we recommend taking a two-step approach:
- Provide food safety training and certification to all employees at your business
- See your business through the eyes of an Inspector
1. PROVIDE FOOD SAFETY TRAINING AND CERTIFICATION
An Inspector will verify that the correct number of employees at your business have a valid Food Handler Certification. The number of employees who require certification is dictated by where your business is located. Click here for information specific to your region.
We recommend providing training to managers, supervisors and frontline employees. The more trained and certified employees that are working at your business, the easier it is to pass an inspection. The Food Handler Certification Course offered by CIFS meets all provincial requirements for food safety training.
2. SEE YOUR BUSINESS THROUGH THE EYES OF AN INSPECTOR
An Inspector is looking to prevent food-borne illness by monitoring the following:
- personal hygiene of Food Handlers
- temperature control
- cleaning and sanitizing
The Inspector will examine all entrances and exits, dining rooms, washrooms, server stations, kitchens, food delivery/ storage areas, employee break rooms and waste disposal operations. We recommend you do the same. To aid you in your quest to never be the cause of food poisoning, we suggest examining seven business checkpoints:
- Food Temperature
- Food Storage and Preparation
- Employee Hygiene
- Sanitization and Maintenance
- Building Cleanliness and Maintenance
- Waste Storage and Removal
- Pest Control
Checkpoint 1: Food Temperature
To ensure that food is being stored, prepared and served at the correct temperatures, always be aware of the Temperature Danger Zone (4°C-60°C /40°F-140°F). The Inspector will have recently calibrated their thermometer; it is essential that you do the same.
Once properly calibrated, use your thermometer to check the following:
- hot food (typically found in hot tables, buffets and serving dishes) remains at a temperature above 60°C /140°F
- cooked hazardous foods reach an internal temperature of 74°C /165°F
The Inspector will check the temperatures of your coolers. Fridges are required to remain at or below a temperature of 4°F /40°C. Freezers are required to be at or below -18°C /0°F.
Checkpoint 2: Food Storage and Preparation
In addition to storing, preparing and serving food at the correct temperature, you must store and handle food properly to avoid cross-contamination. Cross-contamination happens when foods are incorrectly handled, moved or put away incorrectly. Ensure the following to prevent cross-contamination:
- raw meat, poultry and fish are stored in your fridge on shelves below prepared or ready-to-eat foods
- separate utensils and dishes are used when preparing cooked and raw foods
- all food is labelled correctly, and no food is left uncovered
- chemicals and pesticides are labelled and stored away from food and the food preparation areas
- food items are stored 15 cm/6 inches off the floor on shelves, racks or pallets
Checkpoint 3: Employee Hygiene
The Inspector will check the cleanliness of all employees, their clothing and the accessories they wear. It’s imperative you promote high standards of hygiene. Staff not only need to arrive to work clean and healthy, but remain so while in your business.
Check that employee hand washing stations meet the following criteria:
- provide hot and cold running water, soap in a dispenser and paper towels
- are only used for the sole purpose of hand washing, not washing dishes or preparing food
- can be easily identifiable by signage
Check that Food Handlers abide by these standards:
- wear clean garments
- have proper hair restraints (hair nets or hats)
- are not wearing any jewellery that could fall into or come into contact with food
- are free from illness
Checkpoint 4: Sanitization and Maintenance
The Inspector will review how you keep your equipment clean and confirm that your machinery is working well and not in need of repair. Ensure the following actions are being taken:
- utensils, dishes and equipment washed by hand are done with the two or three sink method, or in a commercial dishwasher
- sanitizers recommended by the manufacturer are being used
Small cracks and rough surfaces are a breeding ground for bacteria. Food prepared or served on a surface with even the smallest crack or break can easily harbour dangerous bacteria that can contaminate food. Repair or replace food contact surfaces with cracks and breakage and dispose of cracked or damaged crockery immediately.
Checkpoint 5: Building Cleanliness and Maintenance
All areas of your business, including employee break areas and offices, will be inspected. A bacteria-spreading problem in one area of your business can easily spread to another. Check that your business meets the following criteria:
- floors and surfaces in customer and employee areas are clean and in good condition
- adequate lighting is provided throughout your business (refer to regional building codes)
- the kitchen, bathrooms and dining rooms are properly ventilated
- washrooms have toilet paper, a garbage container, hot and cold water, soap in a dispenser and paper towels
Checkpoint 6: Waste Storage and Removal
Whether you’re disposing of used cooking oil, food waste or hazardous waste, make sure to manage these outputs efficiently. Partnering with industry professionals in the waste removal sector is highly recommended. Ensure the following:
- solid and liquid waste is removed from the food preparation area on a daily basis, or more often if necessary
- waste containers are leak-proof, pest-proof, non-absorbent and have tight-fitting lids
Checkpoint 7: Pest Control
We strongly suggest that you enlist and maintain the services of an accredited pest control company. Although not a requirement for an inspection, it is the easiest way to prevent pests from entering your business. Ensure the following:
- any openings where pests could enter are covered
- dining rooms, kitchen and food storage areas are free from pest droppings
- packaged food being stored has no bite marks or holes
Always Share Results
Whether an inspection is performed by in-house staff or by the government, share your results with your entire team. A violation-free inspection is an ideal time to reward your staff for maintaining an environment that prevents the spread of food-borne illness.
The Real Cost of Not Passing Your Inspection
Minor fines typically range from $45 to $400 (CAD). However, your business can receive multiple penalties during one inspection and increase your fines to thousands of dollars.
Significant violations can involve a court appearance or ban you from obtaining a future licence to open or operate a food business, as well as fines totalling tens of thousands of dollars.
As incidence of food-borne illness continues to rise in Canada, consumers gain knowledge of proper food safety techniques. It’s easy for a customer to spot improper waste disposal, rodent droppings or staff with poor hygiene. When customers see improper food handling, they know they are in danger of food poisoning.
Your best defence is investing in education and holding staff accountable.