Steve Miller of Lansing State Journal reports that we might eat better than Henry VIII, but with such luxury comes the enhanced threat of food-borne illness. More bacteria than ever lurk at the end of that fork.
“We have better and more food in this country than in any other place in the world,” said Diane Gorch, planned programs supervisor at the Ingham County Health Department, who heads a seven-person staff in charge of food inspections at 1,148 establishments.
And while we dine finer than royalty in ages past, Gorch said, “the way the world works now, we have exotic bugs that have never been around us before. So the opportunity for food-borne illness is greater now than it was 20 years ago.”
Listeria, norovirus, shigella, salmonella are all waiting to tango in our digestive tracts, although the human is one tough organism.
“Most people can get through years without any problems,” said Ewen Todd, director of the National Food Safety and Toxicology Center at Michigan State University. “But we do have 76 million cases a year of food-borne illness in the U.S., and that’s about one out of every four people.”
At least 437 diners suffered through 24 to 48 hours of distress after eating at Carrabba’s Italian Grill in Delta Township on the last weekend of January. The cause was norovirus, most likely spread by one or more sick employees handling food, Barry-Eaton health officials have said.
Carrabba’s, like most restaurants, has its share of health violations, including failed hand-washing policies and single-use plastic gloves being used repeatedly.
Ingham County food service establishments, including schools and churches, averaged 1.5 critical violations last year, health department authorities said.
In Barry and Eaton counties, the health department jurisdiction of Carrabba’s, that figure was 2.2.
A critical violation is one most likely to cause food contamination, illness or an environmental hazard. A noncritical violation is less threatening, such as a utensil in disrepair.
The safety of restaurant food in Michigan is overseen by the state agriculture department, relying on federal food-safety standards. But enforcement falls on the counties. All health departments perform two annual inspections, at minimum, categorizing violations as critical or noncritical.
If a restaurant gets slapped with a critical citation, it has to remedy the violation immediately and can expect a return visit within a couple of weeks to ensure the problem no longer exists.
If the violation has not been remedied, it brings fines with it until it is deemed fixed once and for all, or at least until the next inspection. In Eaton County, the levy is called a “reinspection fee” and runs $129. In Ingham, the fine is $101.
If a violation is constant, a three-step hearing process starts. The first is a chat about the problem. The second is an informal hearing in which the owner of the establishment may bring legal counsel. And the third, final hearing is formal and, if no solution is found, could result in a closing.
Local inspectors say they have no recent memory of a restaurant being closed because of violations.
An inspector usually takes a couple of hours surveying an establishment, beginning with an interview with the manager, then working through some observation of employees and a walk-through of the facilities.
“The hardest issue to detect and correct is behavioral,” said Eric Pessell, environmental health director at the Barry-Eaton District Health Department.
While incorrect temperatures and misdated expiration stamps are the most frequent critical violations in his jurisdiction, Pessell said, “I think hand-washing [violations] are actually the most common, but they are so hard to see. It’s the kind of thing that if we observe it, that is very serious.”
Both inspectors and restaurateurs agree that the inspection process is hardly a gauge of sanitary practices, but rather a quick hit that aims to detect violations.
“What these inspections are is a snapshot of that particular restaurant on that particular day,” said Andy Deloney, director of government affairs for the Michigan Restaurant Association, which represents 4,300 food establishments.
“It’s easy to look at an inspection report and come away with the wrong impression. It isn’t always a reflection of how a restaurant is operating on a daily basis.”
With a full understanding of that, Roxanne Burnham of Portland will dine at Carrabba’s next weekend. Her two daughters ate at the westside eatery on Jan. 29. One, Melissa, became sick and missed two days of work. The other, Cristina Anderson, was nauseated but little more.
“It could have happened any place,” said Burnham regarding the recent outbreak.
“I’m sure Carrabba’s is the safest place in town to eat right now.”
Even the people overseeing our food, aware of the intricacies of food-borne illness and its, ah, symptoms, do not fear dining out. It warrants a philosophy, though.
“I’ve eaten guinea pig and sago palm grubs in Peru,” said the well-traveled Gorch, of the Ingham County Health Department.
“I think people will eat what they want to eat. I can just tell you what might be growing in it more readily than the next guy.”