Steve Burger of 14 WFIE reports that there are about 950 retail food establishments in Vanderburgh County, with more being added almost weekly.
All that’s standing between you and the potential food borne illnesses possible at any of those restaurants, convenience stores and supermarket delis are three inspectors and one supervisor in the Food Section of the Vanderburgh County Health Department’s Environmental Division.
The workload for each of those inspectors is approximately one third higher than federal recommendations.
Some viruses that can cause food borne illness are so contagious that as few as ten particles can spread the disease.
You shouldn’t be, according to Food Section Supervisor David Gries, a 30 year veteran with the Vanderburgh County Health Department. “I look at it that we have a system in place regulating this industry. It’s not perfect, but the staff works very hard to make sure the standards are kept.”
Gries says his inspectors are highly trained and experienced. All have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in one of the life sciences, and they all previous food inspection experience.
He says while they each have food establishment lists that exceed federal guidelines, they manage the extra workload by assigning risk levels to the various businesses, and set their inspection schedule according to the risk.
For example, a sit down restaurant with lots of food preparation would have a higher risk than a day-old bread store. Therefore, the sit down restaurant would be inspected at least once every six months, while the bread store would be inspected less often. Gries says the risk based inspection system is approved under state and federal guidelines.
Because of the constantly growing number of restaurants, they are inspected less often than in previous years, but Gries says the retail food establishments themselves are picking up the slack.
He says in 2002, Indiana adopted the rule that every establishment must have a certified food safety employee on staff. Gries says the chain restaurants in particular saw the regulation coming, and most train all their managers in food safety, often going beyond what the regulations call for.
“Immediately, we saw a change in their attitudes because they had the knowledge. They’re much cleaner, they’re adhering to guidelines for food temperature, cleaning and personal hygiene. They’re doing the job to tell their staff why it’s important.”
Gries says also that in these days of hyper-selective consumers, no restaurant chain wants to be responsible for a food illness outbreak.
Gries says they do have food code enforcement responsibility, but they’re much more interested in education and prevention than in shutting down a business for violations.
In a wide ranging interview with Gries this week, 14wfie.com got answers to the questions many of you have expressed about the weekly restaurant inspection reports. Here are those answers:
What is the difference between a critical and a non-critical violation?
Gries defines a critical violation as one that would pose an imminent hazard to the food or eating public. An example would be a refrigeration unit that’s not keeping the food below the required 41 degrees Fahrenheit that allows management of food borne illness threats.
A non-critical violation would be one that threatens the general sanitation of the facility, such as dirt and food particles behind a stove or counter that could attract insects or rodents.
What happens to an establishment that has food code violations?
Gries says the process can include re-inspection, official notification of a violation, an administrative hearing before the county health officer, and finally, the matter could be put before a judge if necessary to close the facility.
Gries says he has never seen a case that needed to be decided by a judge. He says most establishments are willing to work with the inspectors to fix any deficiencies. The few that are not are usually doing poorly in other ways. “Most of the time it’s a financially failing business that gets that bad.”
How do I know a food establishment is safe?
There are three main classes of food hazards:
Biological. An example would be salmonella, hepatitis A or the Norwalk or E-coli viruses. Gries says the Noro virus is so contagious that only 10-100 particles are needed to infect a person. By comparison, tens of thousands of salmonella bacteria might be necessary to infect someone.
Chemical. Cleaning supplies or chemicals that are not properly labeled, and are mistaken for food ingredients.
Physical. A band-aid or some other object falls into the food.
Gries says with so many establishments and potential hazards, there is no way to completely ensure that every establishment is always in complete compliance.
He says several factors contribute to having the safest system possible.
1. First and foremost, education and the certified food safety employee requirement are responsible for better compliance with food handling practices today than in previous years. Also, restaurants fear the publicity of being responsible for a food illness outbreak and the loss of business that would cause.
2. Food safety guidelines are constantly evolving. Gries says the federal government has committed to updating the food code standards every two years. For example, he says the requirement since 2000 that employees must not have bare hand contact with ready to eat foods came about because of studies that showed it was a high risk activity.
3. It is now Indiana law that employees report any illness or symptoms that indicate the potential to cause a food borne illness. Once the report is made, the establishment must take steps to make sure the employee does not come in contact with food until the potential for contamination has passed.
Gries says for example, while a pizza store employee may touch the toppings or crust with their bare hands before it goes into the oven for baking, they must use gloves or some clean utensil to touch it once it comes out.
So, with all that experience and after inspecting some pretty bad food establishments over the years, is Gries confident enough in the system to use it himself? His reply, “Oh yeah. My wife says we eat out way more than we should, but with both people working what can you do?”