Database Reporting Reveals Food-Handling Gone Wrong

Article excerpt

Work also shows inspections sometimes not taking place

The cook in the small family restaurant wanted to make sure the eggs weren't greasy.

So before the heaping plate of breakfast went to the customer, she used a cloth lying on the counter to dab the eggs. She then put the grease-laden rag down, ready for the next meal. It would be used for six hours before being washed.

Such was the scene witnessed by a public health inspector in Hamilton, Ontario, an industrial city with nearly half a million residents, about an hour's drive southwest of Toronto.

The inspector wrote about the incident in his notes, one of more than 2.000 pages of inspection reports released to The Hamilton Spectator as part of its investigation into restaurant safety.

The resulting five-part series, called "Reservations," revealed shocking food-handling practices in the back kitchens of well-known eateries.

But the series was more than just a recitation of horror stories about mouse infestations, rotting food, and cooks who never washed their hands. Using computer-assisted reporting, it also revealed that the city health department was frequently failing to do the inspections required to protect the public, and even when serious problems were found, little or nothing was being done.

Data block

Senior managers at the newspaper had wanted to do a story on restaurant safety for some time. There would be high reader interest, and similar CAR treatments by other newspapers had led to reforms in several North American cities, including Toronto.

The responsibility eventually fell to me because of my special interests in CAR and public documents research. Little did I know that getting out of the starting gate was going to take the better part of a year.

My goal was to obtain a copy of the city's database of food premise inspections, so I could see which establishments had the worst records and whether the city was doing the minimum inspections required to protect the public.

But the municipal health bureaucrats were in no hurry to hand over a disk.

What followed would make a fine curriculum for Obstruction 101. Ontario has an open records law that specifically applies to municipalities. Under it, the city was supposed to make a decision on my request within 30 days of my filing it in March 2000. In reality, it took five months and a meeting with the city clerk (who oversees local administration of the act) before I got my first response.

The answer was no. I could not have the database. But if I was willing to hand over a check for more than $1,000 Canadian (about $630 U.S.), they'd be happy to make paper printouts.

The health bureaucrats said they couldn't provide an electronic copy. Such excuses are routine for bureaucrats. But in this case they were telling the truth, albeit in a narrow, self-serving way as they made no effort to solve the problem.

The provincial health ministry had designed the database system and provided it to municipalities to make it easier for them to report inspection data to the ministry. As well as being able to spit out what the province needed, the system allowed for some standard printed reports, including a list of inspections for any one premise. The city's staff had no idea how to make a copy of the underlying data they had themselves entered.

When questioned, however, they did provide a key piece of information. The application was written in Microsoft FoxPro. As I had used FoxPro extensively in the past, now knew it should be straightforward to write a query to produce the data I wanted.

I called the ministry people who had designed the application, and after some initial reluctance, they agreed to write the query and provide it to the city to run.

Lessons learned

By November 2000, 1 finally had a disk in hand - for $30.

Lesson 1: Perseverance pays in the hunt for data. …