From pests to practices that increase food contamination risks, Department of Environmental Health officers who inspect Cayman’s food service establishments have seen it all.
But when it comes to you seeing which restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations and variety stores meet DEH food safety standards, that’s information the DEH will not make public.
“If the law allowed us to do that, absolutely [we would],” said DEH Chief Environmental Health Officer Richard Simms when asked by the Cayman Compass if he thinks the public should be able to see how food service establishments perform.
“Do I have a personal opinion on that? I’d say yes, I would like to think so. But for me to do it legally, I would need the law behind me to do that. I think people like to know, yes. But I just like to operate within the boundaries of the law.”
“If the law allowed us to do that, absolutely [we would].”
DEH officers make hundreds of visits to food service establishments per year. These include several inspections of supermarkets and bigger restaurants, follow-up visits for those that have previously failed to meet health standards and at least one inspection per year of smaller establishments that may just serve snacks and sodas.
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The Cayman Compass submitted a series of freedom of information requests in 2019 with the DEH seeking two types of records. The first was inspection report records for food service establishments. The second was a list of food-related complaints submitted between December 2018 and August 2019, where members of the public would have contacted the DEH regarding a specific incident.
A DEH spokesperson initially declined the request for all 2019 food establishment inspection reports, saying it would unreasonably divert resources, per section 9(b) of the Freedom of Information Law. The spokesperson then agreed to release handwritten, scanned copies of the reports for a three-month span. When those records were received by the Compass, however, the names of the businesses, owners and managers were all redacted, as were the business addresses and telephone numbers.
“I believe that we have a right to make sure we don’t create that atmosphere where DEH is seen to be pitching this unfair advantage one way or the other,” Simms said. “Our job is to make sure that we enforce the environmental health law and make sure that we do it fairly.”
The DEH cites a section of the FOI law that exempts a record from being disclosed if its disclosure would reveal “information of a commercial value, which value would be, or could reasonably be expected to be, destroyed or diminished if the information were disclosed”.
21. (1) Subject to subsection (2), a record is exempt from disclosure if –
(a) its disclosure would reveal –
(i) trade secrets;
(ii) any other information of a commercial value, which value would be, or could reasonably be expected to be, destroyed or diminished if the information were disclosed; or
(b) it contains information (other than that referred to in paragraph (a) concerning the commercial interests of any person or organisation (including a public authority) and the disclosure of that information would prejudice those interests.
“And that’s the stance we take in terms of my interpretation of the law and not releasing the names of those persons,” Simms said.
The Cayman Compass requested an internal review of the decision to redact the information but the review supported the initial decision not to release the businesses’ names. The matter has been appealed to the Ombudsman’s Office.
What the redacted inspection reports did show, however, was how those establishments performed. Out of 24 food premises inspections conducted between January and March 2019, several were assessed as satisfactory or recommended minor improvements in the inspectors’ notes.
Others, however, were deemed as being in “critical” need of improvements, according to the reports.
“Undertake a thorough deep clean of the kitchen, including all walls, floor, ceiling and equipment,” reads one report, which cited the unnamed establishment as being unsatisfactory in areas of risk of contamination, personal hygiene and pest control, among other criteria.
“Standards have fallen and I am concerned about the hygiene standards I have seen,” the officer wrote in the inspection.
Another report reads, “I received a complaint alleging rats seen around the premises”, while the officer noted he could not find rodent bait in the facility. “I also saw suspected rodent droppings near the dry store.”
The food-related complaints records showed that 40 food complaints were received from consumers between December 2018 and August 2019, but business names were again redacted from the records.
“Some of them are legitimate and others are not,” environmental health officer Gideon Simms said about the consumer complaints.
He says the DEH would rather work with businesses to improve conditions and training than potentially damage their reputation by making business names available on the documents.
“If you get a complaint, say somebody found weevils in oatmeal … Weevils are drawn to oatmeal and cereal,” Gideon Simms said. “So it’s not something that you want to go out and try to paint a person bad because of one incident. This will happen. But on the other hand, if you find mold on bread, you go look at their consignment and you look for the mould and, of course, you deal with it.”
Investigation of consumer complaints concerning food and/or food premises
The DEH will investigate all consumer complaints concerning the sale of food which does not meet satisfactory food safety requirements. This includes if food is unfit for human consumption, injurious to health or so contaminated that it is unfit for consumption.
• Chemical contamination of food, e.g. cleaning chemicals, pesticides.
• Foreign objects found in foods, e.g. insects, glass, metal, hair.
• Microbiological contamination of foods, e.g. pathogenic bacteria, mould.
The DEH will also investigate all complaints concerning the hygienic condition of food premises.
If you have a complaint or enquiry concerning food or a food premises, contact DEH at (345)949-6696.
For complaints about food or food premises in Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, contact DEH at (345)948-2321.