Clean Cuisine : Health Inspectors Enforce Restaurant Rules With Finesse

Times Staff Writer

County health inspector Barbara Price dipped a thermometer into the refrigerated pastrami and raw bacon. Forty-five degrees and dropping. Very good.

Meanwhile, over in the clam chowder pot, it was 178 degrees. Excellent.

The bleu cheese was looking good too, as was the mayonnaise and mustard.

No problem with the beer dispensers--the steady trickle of water meant that yeast would not form around the nozzles. There was running water in the dipper well where the ice cream scooper was. No demerits there--running water would guard against bacteria forming from dairy products.

Next, she shined the flashlight under the sinks, into the corners and cupboards. Whew--no mouse droppings.

All the while, Price was subtly checking out the kitchen workers. How was their personal grooming? Were they scratching at flaky skin? Were they wearing dirty clothes? Was their hair falling into the soup?

For Price, this tour of duty was one of the good ones. After her 30-minute inspection of the Knowl-Wood hamburger restaurant in Irvine, Price wrote her report. She had found just two minor violations--for an untied trash bag in the dumpster outside and for a food preparation table stored with one edge touching the floor, which could introduce contamination.

She and restaurant manager Steve Lewis amiably discussed the violations and bid each other goodby. Lewis said later: "Over the 15 years I've been in the restaurant business, this is the first time a health inspector has actually worked with me. Most of the time (in other places), they seemed to put themselves on a pedestal and wouldn't even speak to me until after they were finished writing their report."

Arriving unannounced, armed with thermometers and flashlights, inspectors are empowered to check every nook and cranny of every restaurant kitchen and restroom in the county. Their aim is to prevent food-borne illnesses from spreading.

"The big key is hand-washing--soap and water," said James Huston, assistant director of the county's Environmental Health Division. "That's the key to breaking the chain of infection from people to food."

That is why a visit to a restaurant's sinks to check for hot water is always one of Price's first stops.

In addition, inspectors check such easily detectable things as storage temperatures--45 degrees or lower for refrigerated food, 140 degrees and higher for heated. Food temperature is crucial, because it can keep germs that might get into food from spreading. Inspectors also look for subtleties, such as an employee leaving clothes that might be contaminated next to food.

And while health officials generally give restaurants in the county good marks for sanitation, Price and the 46 other inspectors of the county's 6,000 restaurants remain vigilant: Every month, eight to 10 restaurants have their health permits suspended and are shut down on the spot for state health code violations that pose immediate dangers to public health. They are not allowed to reopen until the violations are corrected.

"Given the number of establishments, that's not a particularly significant number to cause concern or alarm," Huston said.

In Price's first few months on the job, her reports were much longer than they are now. That led her to ask herself whether she was still being sufficiently diligent. Her conclusion: Her reports were shorter because the restaurants were doing a better job.

"I'd say the restaurants in Orange County are pretty good, and I would say they've definitely improved because of the frequency of the inspections," Price said.

The county has set an as-yet-unreached goal of four unannounced visits a year to restaurants. In recent years, the number of visits has increased from about two a year to the current 3.2 annual visits, Huston said.

Price, 31 and a three-year veteran with the department, remembers the first on-the-spot shutdown she ordered. It came about five months into her job.

"I went to this one restaurant, and on the first inspection, they were bad; they had a lot to do," she said. "I had follow-ups, and then I came back on my second routine (unannounced inspection), and it looked pretty good in the food storage room. There wasn't a lot of food residue on the containers, and I thought, 'This is going to be a lot better.'

"And I came out of this room, and I turned around and I looked on the floor, and this thing had just died. I mean, a fresh dead rat, right near the wash area."

The employees began smirking and pointed toward the dead rodent. "They knew that was what was upsetting me," Price said.

A moment later, one of them picked up the rat by the tail and threw it in the trash can.

While those kinds of episodes give the inspectors something to talk about at the end of the day, they are not typical, Price said. In her three years on the job, she has shut down only about a half-dozen restaurants for health-endangering violations, all for either rodent or bug infestations.

And while finding rodents dead or alive or enduring the harangues of disgruntled restaurant owners occasionally spice the job, an inspector's chore is usually much more mundane, said Price, whose territory includes 115 restaurants, 22 supermarkets and 20 other food outlets in parts of Irvine and El Toro.

The job tends to be mundane because the county is not out to throw its weight around when it comes to compliance from restaurants, supermarkets and other places where food is handled or sold, Huston said. "If somebody (applying for an inspector's job) is looking to be a police officer," he said, "we're not interested. If they're thinking that this (the law) is all on their side, and that they're the enforcers and the police officers of health, that concerns me."

What he looks for, Huston said, are inspectors who can educate restaurateurs about safety and sanitation and use reason and common sense in applying the code.

That role is generally supported by the California Restaurant Assn.

"The relationship between most (health inspectors) and the restaurants they inspect is a positive one," said Stan Kyker, executive vice president of the group.

Inspectors have most of the power in the exchange, Kyker said: "There is a certain element of law enforcement, but there's also a cooperative kind of relationship of the teacher" to the pupil.

Lewis, the Knowl-Wood manager, said past experiences with inspectors were not always pleasant: "Most of the time, it was, 'You do this and have it done by this time, otherwise we'll close you down.'

Price, he said, "is not like that at all. It's supposed to be a working relationship between the two. I think you're going to get more done and be more diligent in the way it's done if you work with a person, rather than put yourself on a pedestal and say this is the way you want it to be. If something needs to be done, I do it out of respect for her.

"It's not like, 'Oh gosh, here's the inspector!' and run around cleaning things up. It used to be that way. You'd see an inspector and run around and do stuff real quick. I don't have to do that with her, because I know she'll be fair."

Price, a former singing waitress at a hotel in Cripple Creek, Colo., would rather kill them with kindness.

"It's hard to get things done if a person is an enemy," she said. "I try to do a lot of explanation as to why I'm asking something. If you just write down a whole list of violations instead of saying, 'You need to get a light guard because the light may shatter and get over your preparation tables and contaminate the food,' they may say, 'What's this lady's problem? She's asking me to fix all these things.'

"There are people who are probably a lot more silent than I am. When I explain things, I seem to get better compliance. They know why I'm asking for something. It's not just some crazy rule."

But try as she might to be nice, having the weight of the law on her side intimidates some people, Price said: "As you do more inspections, sometimes they relax. Some people never do. I had this one lady, she smiled at me for the first time after I'd been doing her place for two years. She had a very clean place. But if I'd write anything down, she'd just be like this," and she recoiled with mock fear.

That fear is no doubt bred of the power the inspectors and the Environmental Health Division have. In addition to its power to suspend a restaurant's operating permit, the inspection division can present evidence to the district attorney's office, which can lead to the filing of civil or criminal charges.

In one of the more celebrated cases, the Red Onion restaurant chain agreed in 1988 to pay $375,000 for health and safety violations incurred over a year--the largest amount ever obtained by the county against a restaurant for such violations. Under the terms of the settlement, the chain did not admit guilt but agreed to pay the penalty to correct health and fire code violations, which ranged from failing to eradicate vermin to blocking emergency exits.

A spokesman for the chain would not discuss the matter, saying only that there have been "no further problems" with the Environmental Health Division.

A nutrition major who graduated with a bachelor of science degree from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Price once hoped for a singing career with a rock band. And while she has a couple of voice commercials to her credit, she was on an uncertain career path four years ago when she noticed a woman carrying a thermometer in her purse.

Remembering from her college days that the thermometer might belong to a health inspector, Price struck up a conversation. That led to the job with the county and the chance to perform in front of crowds in a different way.

Huston, who began as an inspector, said the work can be traumatic: "You're standing in plain view, and you're literally on stage. You know 100 pairs of eyes are on you while you're doing the inspection."

That does not bother Price, a mezzo-soprano who sings both solo and in a four-woman ensemble. "You're coming in with a thermometer and roach spray and a flashlight, they have a couple guesses as to who you are," she said.

The increased frequency of visits has brought progress, Price said: "Not to be Sarah Bernhardt or anything, but I'm real pleased when I see a person who's had all the food out on the counter, and I've had to go in and throw it out and throw it out again, and now when I go in, I don't see any food left out. And I see consistently that they're not doing that.

"That's very pleasing. That makes me feel good, that they really do seem to be learning."

* Orange County restaurant health permit suspensions for June. See Clipboard / Page 2

1988 ORANGE COUNTY FOOD INSPECTIONSNumber of routine food establishment inspections 27,856

Number of food establishments closed 176

Number of food illnesses investigated 416

Pounds of food products condemned/embargoed 39,857

Source: Orange County Environmental Health Division

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