Jim Welte reports that in the midst of the frenetic breakfast rush at McDonald’s in Strawberry, Kara Skahill had no time for a McGriddle. With workers bustling all around her, Skahill, an inspector with the county’s environmental health services division, scoured the fast-food restaurant’s kitchen, clipboard in hand, hunting for food safety violations.
She got down on her hands and knees on the recently mopped floor, searching every nook and cranny to make sure McDonald’s was following state food safety laws and preventing food contamination. She used a temperature gauge to make sure eggs and meats were being stored at the proper temperatures.
An hour later Skahill emerged, with no red-flag violations to report.
She told the store’s manager to keep the permanent dispenser above one of the sinks stocked with paper towels and to create an air gap between an ice bin and a drainage sink. The latter is considered a major violation but one that is easily corrected, Skahill said.
“Overall they fared pretty well,” she said of the restaurant at 600 Redwood Blvd., which was recently sold.
Some of the other 1,416 facilities that serve food in Marin haven’t fared quite so well. A review of documents from the county’s food safety program indicates that more than a dozen food facilities, which include restaurants, cafes, food retail stores and outdoor vendors, required more than two re-inspections in the past year.
The need for a re-inspection indicates that a recurring violation has not been fixed by the facility, according to David Smail, the program’s director.
In some cases, fees are levied by the inspector. Re-inspections, if egregious violations are not repaired, incur a $100 fee. Fees can escalate to $300 and $500 if major problems are repeatedly ignored, but those cases are uncommon, Smail said.
Facilities requiring multiple re-inspections included California Pizza Kitchen in Corte Madera, Noah’s Bagels in Greenbrae and Noonan’s Bar & Grill in Larkspur Landing.
In addition to regular inspections, the program monitors food safety through complaints. People can make a complaint by phone, e-mail or on the county’s Web site.
In the past six years, the county recorded the highest number of food-related complaints in 1999 with 201. As of last month, the county had recorded 115 complaints in 2005.
But complaints of food-borne illnesses appear to be on the rise. The county received no more than 36 of those complaints a year in 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002, but those numbers spiked to more than 60 in 2003 and 2004, and topped 50 last month.
California Pizza Kitchen, in the Town Center Corte Madera, received a series of food-borne illness complaints this year. Inspections that stemmed from those complaints revealed several recurring violations and the restaurant has faced re-inspection fees in both 2004 and 2005. Most of the violations related to food storage at inappropriate temperatures.
The restaurant’s manager declined to comment, referring all questions to the company’s corporate headquarters in Los Angeles.
“California Pizza Kitchen has always had very high standards in regards to food safety and the sanitary conditions of our restaurants,” said company spokeswoman Sarah Grover. “We take great pride in providing a safe and healthy environment for our guests. We have worked very closely with the Marin County Environmental Health Department to ensure our restaurant remains in line with those standards and continue to partner with them to provide only the safest dining experiences.”
Noonan’s received a complaint that a customer ate mussels there and got sick as a result. A subsequent inspection uncovered various violations, but the food-borne illness complaint was limited to the mussels, which came from Maine. All violations have been corrected.
Noah’s Bagels in the Bon Air Center in Greenbrae had a series of violations in April related to food storage and refrigerator problems, forcing the store to throw out food that had been kept at inappropriate temperatures.
Three months later, a customer complained about a sick food handler coughing behind the counter where food was being prepared, and the employee was sent home for the day. The manager told county officials that the employee suffered from allergies.
None of those places had the checkered history of Colonial Liquors in Kentfield, which was shut down in April because of a major problem with rats. Complaints came in about garbage being thrown on the ground in front of the store with rats eating away at it.
The rat problem has also since been fixed and the store has reopened, according to county records.
Store owner Ammanullah Damani declined to comment on the program, saying only, “They have been fair with us.”
The county’s computer system is unable to perform searches based on violations, so the Independent Journal screened violators based on facilities that required ongoing inspections for recurring violations.
As a result, major violations that were quickly fixed did not turn up in an initial review of county records. For instance, the Cantina restaurant in Mill Valley had a major outbreak of the campylobacter bacteria in July, forcing the restaurant to close for a short time. Once employees’ food-handling practices were fixed, it was reopened July 21.
Food facilities are required to post notices they have passed inspection, but not if they incurred fines or fee payments along the way for violations.
But if all goes as planned, the program will be a lot more transparent by early next year, allowing people to find out about violations and violators on its Web site, according to county environmental health services director Phil Smith.
In fact, Smith said, once the county’s system is Web-enabled, people could even punch in the name and place of a restaurant or cafe and find its inspection history. People could also sign up to receive e-mails every time their favorite restaurant is cited for a violation.
“It could be more than you ever wanted to know about your favorite restaurant,” Smith said. “The whole program is really in flux at the moment.”
Smith’s division still has some technical hurdles to cross before the system is ready. They need to make sure that the system will mesh well with the databases of the county’s other departments, which all are being standardized.
But Smith said the money is there to make the transition, and he plans to implement the changes by spring 2006.
The program itself is paid for by annual fees from food facilities. Those fees range from a dollar or two for a seasonal cafe or an espresso bar within a retail outlet to $539 for a full-fledged restaurant.
But even though the facilities pay for the program, inspectors such as Skahill often face confusion and resistance to their regular, twice-yearly visits.
“To explain where we’re coming from is sometimes difficult,” she said. “Sometimes you just have to get them out of that fast-paced kitchen environment, and pull them into an office or something, and they’re a little more responsive.”
The county’s eight inspectors also do regular visits to the 560 swimming pools in the county that are open to the public, including public pools, country clubs, housing complexes and hotels. They also regularly inspect all rental housing in the county for basic health and safety issues.
The inspections focus on “critical control points,” such as minimum and maximum cooking and food storage temperature, stocked and serviceable sinks, sanitized storage to prevent contamination and no rodents, cockroaches or flies on the premises. The inspections also focus on facility maintenance, making sure no floors, walls or ceilings show any sign of deterioration or damage.
The inspection process is governed by CURFFL, or California Uniform Retail Food Facilities Law. That may change within the next few years, as a bill in the state Legislature, SB 144, proposes a major makeover of the current law. The bill is the result of a collaboration between the state’s restaurant association and a statewide coalition of county environmental health departments.
Crawling around the kitchens and backrooms of Marin’s restaurants might not seem like a blast, but Skahill said she loves it.
“It’s just really fun to get out and talk to different people,” she said. “There are certain places you look forward to going and obviously some that are more challenging.”
SPOTS NEEDING MULTIPLE INSPECTIONS
Over the past 12 months, 14 Marin restaurants and food shops required at least three follow-up inspections by county health officials after an initial, unannounced inspection, according to environmental health chief Phil Smith.
Officials often conduct a re-inspection after a routine inspection to ensure that any problems have been corrected. The first follow-up inspection is free, but if another inspection proves necessary, a fee of $100 is normally levied. If an inspector has to make a third follow-up, a fee of $300 is normally charged.
Smith provided a summary of issues involving the 14 establishments. The establishments, and problems cited by health inspectors over the past year, include:
– Burritoville, Larkspur: Health inspectors made seven visits to the restaurant since last November, repeatedly finding improper food storage temperatures and improper rapid cooling of food. Other problems on occasion included flies in the kitchen, dirty wiping cloths, inadequate hand washing, employee cutting flowers on cutting board used for food, and storing raw meat and fish above ready-to-eat food. Reinspection penalty fees were charged.
– California Pizza Kitchen, Corte Madera: Health officials made eight inspections this year, finding repeated instances of improper refrigeration of foods and continuing problems with a pantry refrigerator. Refrigeration was upgraded by a June 1 visit and no temperature violations were noted, but five days later an inspector investigating a “food borne illness allegation” found milk on a counter at an improper temperature. Re-inspection penalty fees were charged.
– China Villa Restaurant, San Rafael: In visits last October through December, inspectors found repeated food temperature problems, and problems with hand washing and cockroaches. Violations were corrected by the fourth visit. Reinspection penalty fees were charged.
– Magnolia Caf�, Larkspur (currently Ward Street Caf� with new owner): Six inspections this year disclosed repeated violations of food temperature requirements. The problem was listed as corrected at a change of ownership inspection last April. Prior owner was charged reinspection fees.
– Max’s, Corte Madera: Seven inspections this year disclosed repeated improper food temperature violations and improper hand wash facilities, with food voluntarily condemned and discarded after three visits. The restaurant closed voluntarily, “cookline refrigeration” was impounded and repairs made. By Oct. 3 refrigeration was in order and “all cleaning and repair items” were corrected. Re-inspection penalty fees have not yet been assessed.
– Milano, Tiburon: Eight reviews this year found repeated failure to meet state-certified food handler requirements. Hand washing and food temperature problems also were reported. All were corrected by a June 21 inspection. Reinspection fees were not charged at the discretion of the inspector.
– New York Bagel, Mill Valley: Fourteen reviews over the past year disclosed problems including fly control, change of ownership without proper notification, construction without approval of plans, improper food temperature, food storage problems, improper hand washing facilities. On Oct. 5, a review found minor food storage violations, improper hand washing facilities, food storage problems and “Fruit flies (major violation). Reinspection scheduled in two weeks.” Reinspection fees were charged.
– Noah’s Bagels, Greenbrae: Five inspections this year found violations of food temperature rules, improper hand washing facilities, food storage violations, utensils improperly stored in hand washing sink. Re-inspection fees were not charged at the discretion of the inspector.
– Noonan’s Bar and Grill, Larkspur: Seven inspections since last October disclosed repeated violations of food storage temperature rules and improper hand wash facilities. Other problems included food storage and employee belongings stored in food preparation or storage areas. Reinspection penalty fees were charged.
– Northgate Shell Food Mart, San Rafael: Six reviews since last December indicated the need for a facility and equipment cleaning, a lack of thermometers and other problems. Fees not yet determined.
– Roast Haus, San Rafael: Seven inspections since last December disclosed repeated food storage temperature problems involving both hot and cold food. Other issues included lack of employee hand washing. By Oct. 5, all prior violations were corrected. Re-inspection penalty fees were charged.
– 7-Eleven, Mill Valley: Seven inspections this year indicated repeated problems with hot water, inadequate hand washing facilities due to lack of hot water, problems with refuse, and a certified food handler rule violation. Re-inspection penalty fees were charged.
– Shin, Larkspur: Five inspections since last December revealed food temperature violations, food storage problems and improper hand wash facilities. Corrections were completed and a re-inspection fee charged.
– Sushi Boat, San Rafael: Four inspections late last year disclosed improper food storage temperatures and other improper food storage. Re-inspection penalty fees were charged.