When Toronto’s food disclosure program started in 2001, customers rejoiced and the Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association (ORHMA) took the city to court, challenging the validity of the by-law that forces restaurant operators to post health-inspection results.
The ORHMA lost the challenge, and colour-coded cards started appearing in front windows after each health inspection. Most restaurants pass these inspections, and almost all that receive a yellow conditional pass (where significant infractions have been observed) gain a green pass notice upon re-inspection a few days later. The only evidence of the previous conditional rating is in a miniscule checkbox under the date of the previous inspection.
We’ve become comfortable with this system, offering us reasonable assurance that there are no rats living in the flour and there is no poop in our food. But how does a popular College Street pizza joint stay open when they have received 78 health infractions in one year?
Since first inspected on October 21, 2004, Amato Pizza at College & Borden has incurred 98 health infractions, nineteen of them with a “crucial” rating [PDF report]. Out of twelve inspections, the restaurant has only fully passed two (it should be noted here that each Amato location is independently franchised, and that other Amato restaurants have relatively good DineSafe histories).
Under the current system, there are three types of infractions based on their level of severity: crucial, significant and minor. A minor infraction would be having a filthy apron or not wearing proper headgear. Improperly washing utensils or not supplying soap for handwashing would be considered “significant,” and a crucial-level violation would be failing to prevent contamination and not keeping hazardous food at proper temperatures.
Along with those 19 “crucial” infractions, this Amato Pizza was also charged with 47 “significant” and 31 “minor” health infractions, along with a by-law violation for failing to post the health notice. There have been court summonses issued on ten charges, five of which are currently pending, one which was dropped, and four which received convictions totaling $14,875 in fines. Throughout all of this, the restaurant has remained open for business.
Interestingly, the restaurant continues to be charged with many of the exact same infractions during each consecutive inspection. I asked the district health inspector for this location how a restaurant that perpetually fails is still licensed to serve food to the public.
“Public health inspectors cannot close premises because they have repeated conditional passes,” she says. “We only have the authority to close a premise if we believe beyond a reasonable doubt that there is an immediate health hazard.”
According to the DineSafe website, a closure notice is issued when one or more crucial infractions are observed “that present an immediate health hazard that cannot be corrected during an inspection.”
Continued non-compliance for crucial charges should result in a court summons. Because this location didn’t have their health notice posted when inspected in December, they were to have closed in April for five days as a court-imposed penalty. The owners appealed their convictions and were granted a stay, with no word yet when the appeal will be heard. Since then, Amato at 380 College has been served with further summons based on a June inspection.
According to a follow-up email I received from the district inspector, she inspected the establishment on July 27 finding that they had corrected most of the charges, but still received one crucial and two minor infraction notices. Another inspector is slated to re-inspect Amato Pizza shortly to ensure compliance.
This raises a question: does the DineSafe colour-coded rating system serve only to pacify consumers on a too-general level? Each crucial-level infraction marks an event where food has already been directly endangered, and presumably already served to the public as such. The public health department says that it is still safe to eat at a restaurant that has received a yellow notice, but should a food establishment be allowed to stay open after repeated crucial violations and multiple court summonses? When a food venue has such abominable inspection reports, must it still be the responsibility of the customer to research?
As for Amato Pizza, they are no stranger to unsavoury charges. Last year, a group of ex-employees staged a protest claiming they were still owed overtime wages and severance pay. Amato boss Walter Cerneka, son of founder Gino, called the protesters “saboteurs” who were paid appropriately.
Amato Pizza is known for their large selection of toppings and is consistently voted a favourite in many local audience polls.
According to Toronto Public Health, there is no reason to believe that Amato Pizza at 380 College Street is currently unsafe to eat at despite its persistently poor inspection record. Concerns over permitting an establishment to stay open can be directed to Municipal Licensing & Standards, City of Toronto at 112 Elizabeth St. or 416-392-3051. The phone number for this particular Amato franchise is 416-972-6286.
INFRACTION DETAIL (from October 22, 2004 to July 27, 2006)
1) “Failure to protect food from contamination”: 9 crucial; 11 significant infractions
2) “Inadequate food temperature control”: 9 crucial infractions
3) “Failure to ensure / provide for proper employee hygiene/handwashing”: 1 crucial; 4 significant; 4 minor infractions
4) “Improper maintenance/sanitation of food contact surfaces/utensils/equipment”: 18 significant infractions
5) “Improper maintenance/sanitation of non-food contact surfaces/equipment”: 1 significant; 23 minor infractions
6) “Improper maintenance / sanitation of washrooms”: 3 significant; 3 minor infractions
7) “Improper storage / removal of waste”: 7 significant; 1 minor infraction
8) “Inadequate pest control”: 3 significant infractions
9) Bylaw infraction (not properly displaying safety inspection notice) on February 9, 2006