Amid the many shifts and pivots that the pandemic has spurred, there were at least two notable changes in the food industry.
In 2021, Ontario loosened the rules and regulations around the Health Protections and Promotion Act and Food Premises Regulation that allowed low-risk and non-hazardous food items not requiring “time and temperature control” to be produced at home and sold.
That mostly includes breads and buns (without fillings or meats), most baked goods, chocolate, hard candies, jams, preserves and more.
Of course, home cooks looking to take advantage and supplement their income had to follow the revised rules (and, of course, have a permit from the city to operate the home business).
The other change was the rapid rise of what are known as ghost kitchens — commercial kitchens that are less visible than a restaurant brand.
In both cases, over the relatively short time, food safety issues may fly under the radar, food science experts say.
Problems with pickles
Earlier this month in California, a popular home pickler came under fire for dangerous picking techniques and, as it often does, the incident blew up on social media.
For Keith Warriner, a professor of food safety at the University of Guelph, this event is part of what he calls a “transition” and warrants consumer awareness, especially when buying some products online.
“We should be careful of foods that can support the growth of microbes. Anything that is pre-cooked, anything that contains meat, anything that contains cream,” Warriner says.
In the most serious examples, Warriner, who was a chef in the United Kingdom before he took a PhD in microbial physiology, cites examples of consumers being made ill by home-produced foods.
“In 2019, in the US, a combination of low salt brine and improper thermal treatment caused three cases of botulism after people ate potato salad containing improperly home-canned peas.”
Ghost kitchens grow in popularity
The food landscape changed during the pandemic with the appearance of “ghost kitchens,” a commercial kitchen that operates without a brand or obvious sign.
That could be a kitchen that prepares menu items for another restaurant brand, although these are rare here among the 3,000-plus food operations in the Waterloo region.
Hypothetically, a ghost kitchen could also be a very busy restaurant in the north end of Waterloo that wants to serve customers in the rapidly growing area of south Kitchener and Cambridge: rather than build out another restaurant in that area, the business rents space at a nearby commercial kitchen and serves neighboring clientele through online orders.
Other forms might be a visible, established restaurant brand that, in order to capitalize on the take-out and delivery market that grew during COVID-19, creates an online taco and chicken-wing “restaurant,” hypothetically, with the menus prepared in the main business’ kitchen for online ordering.
Health department officials don’t have a formal definition of a ghost kitchen, according to Aldo Franco, manager, health protection and investigation at the Region of Waterloo.
“These are treated in the same way as any commercial kitchen,” he says simply.
Collective kitchens have also grown since the pandemic: a number of food operators share the same kitchen space — often prompted by pandemic conditions — to sell their particular brands online, at farmers’ markets or at other food retailers.
Each of these businesses must be licensed and certified and are inspected by a region’s health department; while they may have less visibility, they still get their share of inspections.
“For these businesses, the same regulations and inspections are done,” says Chuck Ferguson, manager of communications for Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health, adding that the vast majority of ghost kitchens are “transparent.”
Generally, food operations are inspected based on a risk assessment — low, medium and high — and usually with announced visits.
For example, a restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week would be considered a high priority and would likely be an inspection rotation once every four months, according to Franco. A lunch counter at the grocery store would have lower priority and be inspected less frequently.
Of course, knowing about these businesses and awareness on the part of the consumer is important in either of these relatively new instances, according to Warriner.
A so-called ghost kitchen may be certified, he says, but it is possible that workers there are not certified in safe food handling.
“That’s where the risk is,” he said.
While it can’t just be sloughed off as a case of caveat emptor, Franco points out that with more than 500 take-out options alone in the region, consumers are well advised to consult the public education about health inspections that appear on a particular region’s website if they have concerns.
Over the pandemic years, a changing food landscape where new and innovative food production has evolved, perhaps less visibly, vigilance is wise and information is power — as it always is. That’s the message from food science.
“If we’re not sure where the food product is coming from, we could be at risk,” Warriner said, especially for homemade foods.
“For high-risk products, there are provincial laws that need to be followed. But it’s likely some home business owners either aren’t aware or fly under the radar.”