County's Health Cops: Markets and Restaurants Are Their Beat

Times Staff Writer

In his dark sunglasses, fresh white shirt and tweed sport coat, Jack Miller could pass for a plainclothes cop. And, in a sense, he is one.

Miller is one of the 38 Orange County health inspectors--or "sanitarians," as they are officially called--who show up unannounced about three times a year to inspect the county's 8,200 food establishments, including supermarkets, taverns and warehouses as well as 4,800 restaurants.

Armed with a lollypop-shaped food thermometer, a can of insecticide to flush cockroaches into the light of day and a flashlight, Miller checks for general cleanliness and makes sure foods are being kept at proper temperatures.

On occasion, it gets a little hot in the kitchen with inspectors on the scene.

"We are insulting people to begin with," said Miller, a 13-year veteran. "We say, 'You are not doing this, this and this right.' They can argue, yell or scream at you."

Each restaurant, for example, is graded excellent, good, average, fair or poor, based on how well operators comply with regulations of the California Restaurant Act and the county Health Code. Evidence of sewage, severe rodent or vermin infestation and lack of electricity, for example, are causes for automatic revocation of a permit. But short of finding those or other immediate health hazards, it's up to the sanitarian to decide what, if any, action should be taken.

"Our primary goal is to motivate people to change, to be educators," said Robert Merryman, the county's environmental health director. "We try hard not to be capricious in using our authority to suspend permits." A sanitarian itemizes in writing any health code violations and leaves a copy of his list with the manager or owner at the time of the inspection. Depending on the number or seriousness of the violations, the inspector may return months later for a routine check, or may set up reinspection soon after, to see that corrections have been made.

If the violations remain, a more officious-looking Notice of Violation informs the proprietor that the conditions must be cleared up within a set time and that the owner has a right to a hearing. If a restaurant still does not comply, its operating permit is suspended.

"Notices usually clear up 90% of the problems," said Merryman, who added that his office is issuing more such notices each year.

From July, 1983, until July, 1984, 701 notices of violation were sent to Orange County food establishments, 98 places were closed and 48 disputes landed in court. In addition, inspectors investigated 411 complaints of food-related illnesses, and 117,000 pounds of rodent and insect-contaminated food were condemned as unfit for human consumption.

"He's here!"

Within seconds of Miller's arrival at the Claim Jumper restaurant in Laguna Hills, the word spread through the kitchen faster than an antsy customer could say, "Check, please."

He's not exactly a celebrity, but Miller--or, more likely, his business card bearing the county seal--is well known to restaurant operators.

"The place goes bananas when they show up at the front door," said Wayne Smith, 22, the chef at the spacious, wood-paneled Claim Jumper, as he slid a lunch plate across the counter to a waitress. "People start sweeping up a little bit, and it gets real quiet." Miller politely inches his way around the kitchen, peering under tables and behind ovens as he checks for signs of insects or rodent droppings. None. "How we lookin'?" asks Phil Carrico, the restaurant's manager.

Miller doesn't answer. He enters a walk-in freezer and notes excess ice on the floor. In a dry storage area, he finds a 50-pound bag of popcorn on the floor. (Food must be stored at least six inches off the floor.) After checking to see that the hot foods are kept above 140 degrees and cold foods below 45, and that storage and trash areas are free of vermin and flies, Miller proceeds to the bar. He commends Carrico on the installation of a "sneeze guard"--a pane of glass shielding the "Happy Hour" hors d'oeuvres.

"We recognize that our job is to be critical. It's good to throw in some positive things as well," Miller says.

Next comes the liquor.

Swirling whiskeys, liqueurs and aperitifs, Miller turns his flashlight on the bottles in search of fruit flies, a common pest in liquor bottles that remain on the shelves for days. After peering into dozens of containers, he removes two bottles of Lauder's Scotch and one bottle of Crown Royal Whiskey for "voluntary condemnation." Tiny flies had made their way down the pouring spouts. "They have to throw these away while I watch," Miller explained.

After reviewing some 30 items with Carrico, Miller sets up a reinspection appointment for the following week. "I feel that all the suggestions he made were excellent," said Carrico, after Miller was gone. "He's taught to find things we don't see. He keeps us on our toes, and that way the community stays healthy and we keep up the standards."

Perusing the six-page report--which noted a missing floor tile, an empty toilet dispenser in the women employees' restroom and some general cleaning deficiencies--Carrico said, "I think the major things he found would not affect the public's health in any way. We'll go ahead and fix 60% of the items by tomorrow."

Earlier that day, Miller inspected a nearby Bob's Big Boy restaurant.

To the sounds of dishes clacking and eggs frying, Miller made his way around the back rooms and food-preparation areas.

After praising the restaurant personnel on their food-handling techniques, clean storage facilities and proper food temperatures (except for the bleu cheese dressing, which registered at 60 degrees), Miller proceeded to the busy waitress station.

Crouching, he opened an empty cabinet below the ice bin--empty, that is, except for a small, dead cockroach and some decomposed mouse droppings.

"Any restaurant can have a cockroach," said Miller, looking up. "It's important how they work to resolve it. There is no function to that cabinet. Employees don't use it, so they don't think to clean it." And in the matter-of-fact tone of a man who has seen it all, Miller added, "Typically, you'll find this around plumbing."

Miller rated the restaurant "good," explaining that he didn't feel there was any infestation of either rodents or cockroaches. "My experience is that if a restaurant owner is responsive, we are not going to close them down for one cockroach or old mice droppings. Their (Bob's) overall conditions are very good. They've established themselves as good operators in the past and take care of problems on their own."

But some restaurant owners, Miller said, are not so cooperative.

Sanitarian Cheryl Eliades agrees.

"The toughest thing in this job, being a woman, is that different cultures have different philosophies," said Eliades, 27, who has encountered some recalcitrant operators since she started on the job three years ago. "Seeing a woman come in may be hard to accept." On a recent inspection of Le Biarritz Restaurant in Newport Beach, however, Eliades had no such trouble. Manager Cheryle O'Gara and chef Don Viggione accepted her recommendations, which included moving two hanging "fly zappers" away from food-preparation areas and repainting a peeling wall under the dishwasher.

"We're pretty conscientious here," said O'Gara, clearing a place at a dining room table so that Eliades could write her report. "These are more legal technicalities than something really horrible."

Eliades said most operators are responsive but, from time to time, an argument arises.

"It's usually over repair work--something that is going to cost the restaurant a lot of money, like a new floor. But we give them time on that, within reason."

Depending on the size of the restaurant, inspectors spend about an hour in each place. Since the Truth in Menu program was instituted in 1972 (Does the menu say "fresh fish" when in fact it is frozen?), they take a few extra minutes to make sure what is on the menu is what is represented in the stock.

According to the county's assistant environmental health director, James Huston, the job requires a college degree--preferably in biology--a minimum of one year's training with a health department and passing California's registered-sanitarian exam. Sanitarians earn between $21,264 and $28,500 a year.

Most say they entered the field because they would rather work with people than in laboratories and they feel rewarded when they see improvements. As with any job, though, it is not without its frustrations.

"It really kind of irritates me when some guys give me 'the wait,' " said Miller, 35, who supervises six sanitarians in the south county area. "Sometimes they're counting money or are busy, but other times. . . ."

Asked whether he has ever been offered a bribe, Miller shook his head and chuckled.

"Most people don't offer; that's what's neat. Sometimes they'll offer you a meal, but it's rare. They don't want you there any longer than you already are."

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