Kathy Stephenson of The Salt Lake Tribune reports that restaurant inspector Leslie Freeman visits each of the county’s restaurants twice a year – no easy task, as there are 210 year-round restaurants and 30 seasonal establishments.
Restaurants that receive several “critical violations” – ones that can cause a foodborne illness outbreak – will get an additional visit to make sure problems have been addressed. The inspection process is similar across Utah.
“An inspection is really just a snapshot of the moment,” she said. And while it may not tell all, it does give the health department an idea of whether the employees know proper food-handling practices.
The arrival: At the restaurant, Freeman’s first stop is the restroom where she checks for hot running water, soap and paper towels. While these are much appreciated by customers, Freeman says it is far more important to have these for the employees, who must wash their hands properly before going back to the kitchen and handling food. Improper handwashing is one of the most common causes of foodborne illnesses.
Freeman greets the chef and together they head to the kitchen. She stops just inside the door to peak into the large metal ice machine. She makes sure it is free of mold and that the ice scoop – which is usually touched by bare hands – is not stored inside the machine, contaminating the ice.
Freeman takes a look behind the machine for a short drainage pipe. If it goes too far into the sewer drain – and the sewer happens to back up – things can get a bit disgusting, she said.
The automatic dishwasher is our next examining point.
“If the food is clean and the plates are not, you’ve lost the battle,” Freeman says, as she puts the thermometer in the dish rack and watches as it moves through the wash cycle.
When it comes out, it reads 162, lower than the 165 degrees required for proper sanitizing. Almost simultaneously, Freeman makes a note on her clipboard and the chef makes a note to call his local appliance repairman.
Freeman pulls a pack of chlorine strips from her pocket and sticks one in the washer’s hot water. Oops, too high. While it won’t hurt the customers, the chef says it is a financial problem. Chlorine is costly and if the meter inside the dishwasher is releasing too much chlorine per washload, it ultimately hurts his bottom line.
Cold and hot: Before she opened the heavy door to the walk-in refrigerator, Freeman explains how important it is for restaurants – and home cooks – to keep animal products such as beef, poultry, milk and eggs cold, below 41 degrees. Food left at a higher temperature is a magnet for bacteria growth.
In the refrigerator, Freeman pulls out her favorite inspection tool – a commercial-grade laser thermometer. She points the gun at a package of beef and pulls the trigger. The thin red beam of light hits the meat and registers 39. “Perfect,” she said. She does it again to the chicken and nods her head in approval.
Foods such as rice, beans, pasta and potatoes pose no health threats before cooking, but afterward can be as much of a hazard as raw meat if not cooled quickly, said Freeman.
“Most food poisoning occurs in the cooling process,” she said. Cooked food stored in large, deep containers usually spells trouble. The food around the outside of the container will cool in a reasonable amount of time, but the food in the center is insulated and will remain at a warm, bacteria-growing temperatures for many hours.
Freeman wants to see food stored in shallow containers that have been properly labeled and dated. The kitchen has seven days to use these cooked products before they must throw them out, she said.
Freeman also scans the shelves for cross-contamination problems. Is raw meat and poultry stored above fruits and vegetables? Raw meat juices can drip on food that will not be cooked, potentially making someone sick.
Satisfied with the kitchen’s cooling practices, Freeman steps out of the refrigerator and heads to the dry storage area where she finds everything in order: Canned foods are stored six inches above the floor, none of the cans are dented or damaged and no chemicals are stored above food.
“You don’t want WD-40 or bug spray leaking into the food,” she said, adding that “in most dry storage areas you don’t see problems.”
I stop at the freezer, but Freeman walks right past.
“Freezing kills everything,” she says, heading instead to a second prep station where hot foods are kept. Out comes the laser thermometer. She shoots the red beam at various items; everything registers above the safe 140-degree zone. Keeping hot food hot (above 140 degrees) and cold food cold (below 40 degrees), she says is one of the most important things in food safety.
She checks a small refrigerator under the counter. The carton of liquid eggs registers a warm 50 degrees. Since it is shortly after the breakfast rush,
Freeman accepts the argument that it was probably just used. But a few other items in the fridge also register too high. A little investigation reveals that the seal around the door is warped, letting out precious cold air. Once again Freeman makes a mark on her inspection form and the chef makes a note to call the repairman.
Freeman then takes a look upward at the ceiling and wall above the grill. There is a little grease, but that is unavoidable, she explains. If a kitchen lets the grease get too thick it can attract dust and “fuzz” which can ultimately drop into the food cooking below.
Cutting boards and dish cloths: Freeman takes extra time at the cutting station, checking the wooden boards to make sure they do not have any deep scratches where bacteria can hide. She pays special attention to the sanitizer bucket that sits next to the cutting board. It contains dish cloths that are used to clean the board and the knives. A test strip dipped into the water determines if the solution has the correct ratio of ammonia to water. A watered-down solution will not kill the bacteria properly.
“I probably have 17 or 18 sanitizer bucket violations a month,” said Freeman. Today the solution is borderline and tells the chef to talk to his employees.
Throughout the whole inspection Freeman has kept a keen eye on the employees. She looks for any open cuts not covered with a bandage. She listens for a sneeze and waits to see if someone changes their work gloves. She watches for a waitress to touch her face or hair and then forgets to wash her hands.
As the inspection winds down, Freeman asks to see all the food handlers’ permits and the food manager’s certificate, one of the most common violations. The person who has the certificate is the key to keeping the restaurant in shape when Freeman is not around.
“You have to have someone in the restaurant that teaches proper food safety and expects it from the employees,” she says.
While the restaurant has a few things to work on, overall, Freeman is pleased with what takes place in the kitchen.
She’ll definitely return, this time as a diner.