Food for thought: Inspectors keep an eye on eateries

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By Lisa King

Whether it's an anniversary, birthday, promotion, graduation or just about any special occasion, how do most people celebrate?

That's right -- by dining out.

Everyone knows what's on the menu at their favorite restaurant. But do they know if they're risking their health by eating there?

The most popular way to gage an establishment's suitability is by their most recent health inspection score, which all restaurants must display.

The scores read much like a student report card. An "A" is 93-100, a "B" is 84-93, and anything below 84 is a "C." A score of 60 or below means the facility will be shut down until the violations are corrected.

But David Cammack, environmental supervisor at the Shelby County Health Department, said that even though these scores are a general indicator of how clean an eatery is, the score itself can be misleading.

Health inspection scores

"You can actually get a 95, which looks like it's an "A," but if that one violation was a five-point, you're going to get a 'C,' he said. "We get a lot of that."

Cammack explained that health violations are given a point value. For example, a critical violation consists of a four or five point debit. These are things that constitute an imminent health hazard, such as serving spoiled food. Luckner Jean-Marie, with the Louisville Metro Health Department, said if a proprietor is unable to correct a critical violation right away, that could mean shutting the establishment down, even if they have a 95.

"If they have sewage backup in the kitchen, and couldn't fix it right away, they would have to be shut down," he said.

Another example of a critical violation is gaps around doors that allow rodents to enter. Cammack said the two most common critical violations are serving outdated or spoiled food and employees not washing their hands.

"If I happen to be checking the restrooms and an employee just happens to be in there, and I happen to witness them go to the bathroom and then go right back to the prep area without washing their hands, that would be a critical violation," he said.

Food handler permits

Although most larger cities require restaurant employees to obtain a food handler's permit, many smaller counties, such as Shelby County, do not.

Cammack said this is because it causes problems trying to check permits of all employees when there is such a large turnover in the food service industry.

"It's almost impossible to monitor when somebody quits and when they get a new person," he said. "You can have a kid come in for a week and say, 'This isn't for me, I'm quitting.'"

But Jean-Marie says that in 1989, Louisville began requiring all food service workers to obtain a food handler's permit. What precipitated that decision was an incident the year before that stemmed from contaminated food, he said.

"In 1988, we had an epidemic outbreak of Hepatitis A, and as a result of that, the Metro Council, the health department, they decided one of the ways to prevent that was to start a food handlers' class," Jean-Marie said. He said the city deemed the measure necessary, feeling that the more that food handlers were educated on food safety procedures, the less likely it would be that a similar incident would occur again--an incident the city considered to be very serious.

"It was serious enough to cause 220 people to get sick," he said.

Cammack said that one good way to keep patrons from getting sick because of food they are served is for restaurant owners to educate their employees on food safety. They can obtain literature through the Food and Drug Administration or the United States Department of Agriculture, or they may contact him.

"Any proprietor who wishes can call me and I will come and hold a food safety class at their business," he said.

Nancy Barnett, owner of Barnett Baking Company in Bagdad, who just opened a catering business, agrees that there is more involved in running a food service establishment than one would think.

"I had my first inspection today and got a 99," she said. "He took a point off because I had contact paper on a storage shelf. I didn't know I wasn't allowed to have that; I guess I have some things to learn," she said, laughing.

"Contact paper is fine for your kitchen at home, but not in a business," Cammack said. "But overall, the place is very clean," he said, glancing around appreciatively at Barnett's kitchen. "I was very impressed as soon as I walked in the door."

Inspection procedures

What is the inspector looking for when he makes an inspection?

Cammack said the restaurant inspection takes in a lot of factors, including the temperature of walk-in coolers, which must be 45 degrees or colder to prevent food from spoiling. Hot foods are checked as well; food on buffet lines must have an internal temperature of 160 degrees. Cleanliness of food equipment and utensils is also checked, as well as water, plumbing, garbage and refuse disposal, and insect and rodent control. In addition, the inspector checks the condition of lighting, ventilation and storage areas, and overall cleanliness. Cammack said what inspectors are looking for is a build-up of dirt.

"We do give them the benefit of the doubt during rush hour," he said, adding that he understands that at this time, there may be dirty dishes stacked up. Another rule is that food must not be stored on the floor in the cooler, another thing that he takes into consideration.

"Those boxes may be sitting right on the floor because they haven't had a chance to get in there and break them down and store them yet," he said. "I'd rather them be siting on the floor in cold storage than sitting out of the walk-in. So you've got to use a little common sense with what's going on, too."

Be observant

What can customers do to protect themselves?

"Number one, is to check their grade," he said. "And also, people should observe if there's hand washing going on. Also, just notice the general overall cleanliness, how the staff looks, and their uniforms."

Cammack said hand washing is more important than wearing latex gloves, because gloves can pick up germs just like hands can, and worse yet, most employees don't wash gloves.

"I get a ton of calls from people saying that so-and-so wasn't wearing gloves. Well, as long as they're washing their hands, good. I would rather observe them washing their hands and fixing my food with bare hands than not washing their hands and putting on gloves. Gloves give people a false sense of security. There is nothing in the world that takes the place of hand washing."

Another thing that people can do if they have a concern about a particular restaurant is to call the health department and discuss it with the health inspector. Cammack said that all complaints are investigated and the name of the person is not given to restaurant personnel.

"We do not release that information," he said. "If we get a complaint on a facility, we just go in like it's a regular inspection," he said. "We always say who are and what we're here for, and tell them we've received a complaint and we're here to do an inspection and make sure you guys are doing what you're supposed to be doing and check out the complaint."

All 240 eating establishments in Shelby County must be inspected at least twice a year, and some must be checked more often than that, if a re-inspection is required to follow up on a violation, or if a complaint must be investigated.

Overall, Cammack said, most restaurants in Shelby County are fairly clean.

"I've been here for 13 years, and in all that time, I've only had to shut down three," he said.

In addition to being vigilant when dining out, people can also learn about food safety preparation from the USDA's website, www.fsis.usda.gov.

The USDA offers valuable tips on numerous topics, including defrosting, food dating, keeping down bacteria, preparing bag lunches, mold on food, refrigeration, keeping food safe while picnicking, take-out food, and much more. The USDA's Food Safety Hot line is celebrating its 10-year anniversary this year, also. Consumers may call the toll-free number (888-674-6854) any time for information on these and many other topics.