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Safety in numbers

An inside look at county restaurant inspections
Restaurant inspectors look for what the public can’t see, such as the internal temperatures of foods that are ready to eat, and cooked foods that must be chilled for storage. [123rf.com]

Dirty floors, dusty shelves, grimy grill hoods — all deserve hardly a glance from health inspectors evaluating the state’s restaurants.

Inspectors are looking for what the public can’t see: namely internal temperatures of foods that are ready to eat, and cooked foods that must be chilled for storage. Digital probe thermometers are inspectors’ most valuable tools.

Any potentially hazardous foods — meat, dairy, eggs, seafood, cooked grains, pasta and cut-up fruits and vegetables — warmer than 40 degrees or cooler than 140 degrees have entered the “danger zone.”

Thriving under these conditions, microorganisms that cause food-borne illness continued to pose the gravest danger to restaurant diners amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Sanitation measures, including hand-washing and cleansing surfaces, designed to prevent disease outbreaks in restaurants already were more than adequate to combat COVID, says Chad Petersen, who manages Jackson County’s Environmental Public Health Program.

“Just because COVID is here doesn’t mean you should be washing your hands any more or any less.”

Some restaurants’ reliance on gloves to minimize bare-skin contact with food took a back seat during the pandemic’s glove shortage. Health inspectors such as Petersen saw an opportunity to reiterate that gloves can create a “false sense of security” when food-service workers can’t sense from touching raw foods that they need to change their gloves — or dis-pose of them and wash their hands.

“Good hand-washing can really negate a lot of that fear,” says Petersen.

A public fearful of germs lurking on solid surfaces also drove developments in new sanitizers recently approved for restaurant use, says Petersen. Alcohol- and acid-based formulas are showing up alongside the food service industry’s standard chlorine bleach and quaternary ammonium compounds, he says.

And new equipment, primarily used in fast-food restaurants, isn’t only minimizing contact with food, says Petersen. Corporate chains are constructing such systems to address a nationwide shortage of workers, he says. While customers may experience the lack of restaurant staff through longer wait times, or even dining room closures at locations with drive-thru windows, health inspectors more than ever must be educators, over enforcers, says Petersen.

“Every time my inspectors go into a facility, it’s like starting all over again,” says Petersen.

“You used to depend a lot more on stable management,” he says. “A lot of that essential knowledge ... is disappearing.”

Baseline understanding of food safety, such as using separate cutting boards for meat and produce, can go only so far in a restaurant setting, where space restrictions for storage of potentially hazardous foods can lead to unsafe practices, says Petersen. Managers must be vigilant against failures of heating and cooling equipment, as well as improper employee procedures.

A workplace ethic — upheld by management — of not just passing an inspection but acing the evaluation sets the region’s highest-performing restaurants apart.

Performing less than half of its normally scheduled inspections last year, Petersen’s staff was slim during the pandemic and was also working through a back-log from 2020, when state regulators advised against on-site verification of restaurant sanitation.

With the county’s return to full-time inspections, some of its 785 licensed establishments underwent their first inspection in two years. Ordinarily, inspections are required every six months.

Restaurants begin their inspections with 100 points, from which inspectors deduct for violations, categorized as “priority,” “priority foundation” and “core.”

The first designation directly prevents food-borne illness; the second entails management’s specific actions, equipment or procedures that control risk; the third relates to cleanliness, maintenance and facility design.

Violations warrant deductions of three to five points apiece, and the penalty for repeat violations is double. Restaurants also must undergo reinspections for priority violations to ensure compliance.

“They want to do the right thing,” says Petersen of restaurants’ attempts to adhere to sanitation standards.

If more than 30 points are deducted during an inspection, the facility has “failed to comply” and must post a state-issued notice to that effect. Inspectors remove the facility’s notice when it passes a reinspection, usually a week later. A restaurant is not required to close when it’s failed to comply.

The vast majority of restaurants score in the high 80s or 90s, says Petersen, and a handful fail each year. Held to the same standards as bricks-and-mortar counterparts, the county’s 166 mobile food units also are inspected semiannually.

Among pandemic success stories, the county’s food trucks increased about 15% in 2021, reflecting steady growth for the past few years, says Petersen. While wondering at what point the market for mobile eateries is saturated, Petersen says he thinks some of the new endeavors reflect a pandemic-fueled desire for self-employment.

And despite several highly publicized restaurant closures locally, says Petersen, the number of fixed-location establishments is largely unchanged since the pandemic. Factor in corporate chains’ new construction with the region’s existing food service facilities, and “there’s always kind of a net gain,” he says.

“For every restaurant that goes out of business, that is prime real estate for somebody else,” says Petersen. “There’s always somebody who thinks they have better barbecue than you.”

Click here to read the 2022 edition of Our Valley.