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CityNews Investigation: College and University eateries not making the grade

Last Updated Feb 8, 2017 at 5:22 am EDT

When teenagers head to university, they’re often warned about the “Freshman 15”, but some should more concerned about the handling of their food than the calories in them.

Following a January scare that sent dozens of Humber College students to nearby emergency wards with violently upset stomachs, CityNews decided to investigate Toronto campuses’ food safety track records. The investigation revealed a concerning number of food safety violations on college and university campuses city-wide.

Food inspections at Humber College were comparatively safe, despite the January illnesses and a video that went viral on social media showing a cockroach crawling along a campus restaurant’s counter.

However, revelations about other campuses raised some eyebrows.

York University, for example, played host to not only the most dining establishments on Toronto campuses but also the most food safety violations and infractions as reported by Toronto Public Health.

Of the 44 on-campus establishments, 36 presented more than 200 violations in a two-year period. This included several citations for failing to ensure food is not contaminated, failing to ensure proper food safety, failing to provide hand washing supplied or sinks for employees, and failing to provide adequate pest control.

Sample Food Inspection Report by CityNewsToronto on Scribd

Jennifer, a third year York University student, changed her dining plans after learning the on-campus establishment were she had planned to grab breakfast had been cited for failing to properly clean their equipment and rooms.

“It’s disgusting.” she said. “It’s kind of hard when we don’t have many options if we come from home. We think it’s safe.”

“York University requires all food services providers on campus to uphold the highest municipal, provincial and federal food safety standards,” York University spokesperson Barbara Joy said in a statement.

“Currently, all York University food services providers are operating under a green pass.”

That has not always been the case.

Using Toronto Public Health’s Dine Safe database, CityNews combed through more than 800 inspection reports for every Toronto post-secondary campus between 2015 and January 2017. York’s offerings have received several yellow – conditional – passes, where the establishment has 48 hours to rectify “significant” or “crucial” violations. These crucial violations include storing potentially hazardous foods at unsafe temperatures.

But York is not alone.

Several establishments at the University of Toronto’s St. George and Scarborough campuses have undergone “conditional passes” for severe violations in the past.

“Campuses are not less safe than any other place. The compliance rate is about 90 per cent,” Sylvanos Thompson, associate director at Toronto Public Health, said. “If a premises is regarded as high risk and some of these campuses’ premises are high risk inspections, we are required to inspect them three times yearly.”

Toronto Public Health was unable to confirm how many students, if any, fell ill as a result of these violations

“There’s a chance that we may not know. As a matter of fact, there’s an estimate that only one out of 100 food borne illnesses is reported anyways,” explains Thompson.

Many of those “high risk” establishments are repeat offenders for the very same violation. But, according to Toronto Public Health, inspectors don’t have the power to shut down the premises indefinitely.

“We can only close an establishment once a health hazard exists but once that health hazard is abated they are allowed to reopen. No matter how many infractions, we have no authority to permanently close them,” Thompson said.

Essentially, the restaurant will be allowed to operate while it deals with the violation – including infestations.

“If an inspector has been writing down, repeatedly, a specific kind of violation – like hand washing or food contamination – it means that there’s a risk to the consumer,” Jim Chan, a retired public health inspector who spent over 30 years with Toronto Public Health, explained.

“If you see mice running around or droppings, technically that’s a direct hazard to people because you know, you’re making food in such an environment. Depending on how bad the infestation or the condition of the establishment, the inspector determines ‘they’re bad, but they can be corrected within 48 hours’, the inspector can issue a yellow card.”

Chan stressed that the Dine Safe program has helped get more restaurants and cafeterias up to code — including those on campus.

And while he points out that many of the violations found at Toronto campuses could cause food-borne illnesses, students are at a lower risk than the elderly in long-term care homes or patients in hospital.

“If it’s a college and university, the population they serve is usually very healthy,” Chan said.

Despite this knowledge, fourth-year sociology student Sabrina said she is going to pass on the fruit salad from her favourite stand on campus after learning it has been cited several times for failing to properly wash its equipment, and using practices that could lead to contaminated food.

“That for sure turns me off,” she said.

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Food inspections: Toronto university and college campuses by CityNewsToronto on Scribd