The way people source and purchase their food has significantly changed over the past few years thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Home-based food service businesses and delivery companies have flooded the market, making it easier to support local and get food on-demand.
It’s made life easier for consumers, but considerably more difficult for those tasked with ensuring the safety of food being produced and delivered in the community.
Lockdowns, restrictions and a lack of reporting of new businesses have all hindered Region of Waterloo Public Health and their food inspection efforts.
“Home-based food businesses were becoming popular prior to the pandemic and it increased significantly during the pandemic,” said Aldo Franco, manager of food safety, health protection and investigation for the Region of Waterloo.
“Inspections didn’t change, but the ability to conduct our normal compliance inspections of 3,000-plus food premises on a routine scheduled basis was impacted," he added.
"Staff redeployment, pandemic response, restrictions that were put in place to reduce the spread of infections, and addressing Reopening Ontario Act (ROA) complaints and enforcement, our public health inspectors couldn't establish their normal inspection schedules with all their food premises.”
Because of the redistribution of resources, public health prioritized and responded to complaints as opposed to making routine inspections.
Inspectors were also responsible for monitoring and enforcing the ROA requirements around capacity limits, PPE and vaccination, which caused some strain between them and food service operators.
The financial stress took its toll and forced some businesses to close. But new numbers show the industry is well on its way to making a full recovery.
Since Jan. 1, 2022, there has been a net gain of 174 food premises from pre-COVID numbers, resulting in a total of 3,329 currently open in the Public Health database.
With the influx, the region will be focusing on a risk-based approach, Franco says.
“A risk-based approach means re-establishing our compliance inspection schedule on a prioritized approach, based on potential risk,” he said.
“For example, as we moved out of the emergency phase of the pandemic in early 2022 and into recovery from the ROA requirements, we started to re-establish our presence in food premises for routine inspections. Risk-based is meant to prioritize those premises that are considered high or moderate risk, first.”
High-risk premises are defined as establishment that have complex and multiple steps of food handling of high risk foods. Examples include full service restaurants or institutions serving high risk populations. They require inspection no less than once every four months.
Moderate-risk refers to premises requiring less preparation or complexity in food handling, for instance fast food take-out. These places are inspected no less than once every six months.
Low-risk is any premises that may handle limited foods like pre-packaged items at convenience stores. They require inspection no less than once every twelve months.
There are consequences for any business that doesn’t report its operations to the appropriate regulators.
“Under the Provincial legislation, a food operator must notify the health unit of their intention to open a food premises,” Franco said.
“They must also notify municipal zoning and licensing departments to ensure they can meet the specific requirements. If operators notify us and the municipality we can help ensure they operate safely and in compliance with the legislation.”
The main concern for the health unit is making sure the food being produced is safe for consumption, and while home-based businesses have become all the rave, the health unit recommends renting a commercial space.
Your home isn’t always a conducive environment to operate a full commercial kitchen preparing high risk foods, while attempting to comply with the regulatory standards of such operations, Franco says.
The 2022 public health operating budget includes a provision of $55,000 for the food safety program directly. The cost shared Mandatory Programs such as the Food Safety Program are funded up to 70 per cent by the province with the remainder funded by the local tax levy.
The site provides inspection results for a two year period and aims to help the public make informed decisions on where they want to dine or buy their food.