In a move to force more compliance with health laws, Ventura County officials plan to start publicizing the names of restaurants, grocery stores and other food providers that are closed for violating county standards.
“The public assumes a certain level of inspection and operation, and they have a right to know when that’s not met,” said Elizabeth Huff, who coordinates food service inspection for the county’s Department of Environmental Health.
In issuing the periodic announcements to the media, starting in about 45 days, the understaffed agency has another motive, Huff said.
“I’m sure the outcome will be better compliance,” Huff said. “It’s pretty bad publicity.”
She said closures occur from three to 10 times a month. “It has to be something that in our professional judgment is a safety hazard to the public,” Huff said. “We want to prevent outbreaks of food illness. We don’t want to wait till there’s a problem.”
The county has eight inspectors to keep tabs on about 2,400 restaurants, grocery stores, bakeries, mobile caterers and other food providers.
“We try to do two inspections per year at each facility,” said Bob Williamson, Huff’s supervisor. “Last year we averaged about 1.8.
“We usually find about eight violations per establishment, the majority of which are minor things,” Williamson said. Closures occur only when violations are not corrected or when an immediate health danger exists.
In addition to routine, unannounced visits, inspectors act on complaints, Huff said. She said about half the agency’s closures are based on inspections and half on complaints.
For example, a routine inspection on May 8 led to the shutdown of the Pleasant Valley Market in Port Hueneme because of what an inspector called an “immediate danger to the public.” The inspector found 39 violations of the state Health and Safety Code, including “very poor sanitation, inadequate food temperatures, lack of hand-washing supplies and numerous flies,” according to the report.
“Temperature problems are a pretty common reason for closure,” Huff said. “If you can’t keep food safe, you can’t function.”
The manager of the store, who asked not to be identified, said Tuesday that the problems “really were no big deal” and said the store corrected them and reopened in about five hours.
The manager said the inspector wrote up “every little thing. . . . He just got on our case over everything. There was no reason to get shut down.” The manager acknowledged, however, that there were problems at the small neighborhood grocery. “Sometimes things build up, you forget about them.”
“We’re keeping up with it now,” he said. “I can’t afford to get shut down again.”
Similar fears were voiced by the manager of Szechwan Garden Restaurant on Los Angeles Avenue in Simi Valley, which was closed May 8 because of rodents, refrigeration problems and sanitation violations. The manager, who identified himself only as Jim, said he voluntarily closed the restaurant for two days when the problems were pointed out, and said he has worked hard to get the restaurant in shape after buying it two years ago.
Stanley Kyker, executive vice president of the California Restaurant Assn., said publication of a closure notice can hurt a business, especially in a small town. He said the health department should not only enforce the law but make sure that the restaurant operator understands it and has a chance to comply.
“Dirty restaurants should be cleaned. I don’t condone that sort of thing,” Kyker said. “I still don’t like the impact of reporting like that in the paper. . . . It tends to paint a bad picture of the industry at large.”
He said he objected to minor violations being publicized and to publication of voluntary closures. When a restaurant shuts down voluntarily to work on its plumbing, for example, it is supposed to notify the county agency, which records it as a closure.
The Coffee Grinder restaurant in Moorpark was closed April 24. Manager Dino Papanicolaou said it was primarily for installation of a new water heater, but the inspector’s report also said 12 of 18 violations found during an inspection Jan. 25 had not been corrected.
Papanicolaou said the violations were things such as lack of soap in dispensers, a hole in the screen door and a burned-out light bulb. “This is a busy place,” he said. “Things are constantly torn up.”
Huff said all closures will be publicized but so will the reasons.
“The purpose of this is not to put people out of business,” she said. “But by the same token, people are eating there.”