WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : A Health Regimen : They look for danger under shelves and behind refrigerators. Armed with just a pen and paper, county health inspectors scour restaurants, markets, and factories to safeguard the public.

On a recent afternoon, Los Angeles County health inspector Mike Byrne drops by a basement delicatessen in a Beverly Hills office building for an unannounced inspection.

Within minutes, the eatery, A and S Buffeterium, has accumulated more than a dozen violations of county codes. Byrne has spotted cockroach droppings on pipes, open bulk food containers and diced vegetables stored in metal cans.

As his inspection continues, Byrne disposes of a pound of cooked chicken and a platter of tuna salad after measuring the temperature of the food, which is too warm. Ninety minutes later, after looking under shelving, moving produce and poking behind refrigerators, Byrne is sweating profusely as he finishes the inspection. There are 34 violations, a large number for so small a retail space, he says.

Shortly after he reads the violations to the owner, she bursts into tears at the extent of the needed corrections. Perhaps the most expensive will be to replace the restaurant's consumer-type refrigerators with commercial models that are more durable, easier to clean and better at maintaining temperatures. "Sometimes it's not easy to deal with--you wonder if the corrections will put someone out of business," Byrne says. "But it really doesn't cost a lot to keep a place clean."

For the past few years, Byrne has poked in every nook and cranny of hundreds of Westside grocery stores, supermarkets and restaurants searching for telltale signs of food-borne illnesses. Armed with a clipboard, thermometer and flashlight, he has spent hours crawling on his knees, climbing ladders and reaching into dark storage areas to enforce the county's health, building and safety codes.

Today, such excursions are merely memories. Byrne was recently promoted to a supervisorial position in the county Department of Health Services' Vector Management Division. But he takes pride in the three-year tour of duty he just completed at the county Environmental Health Division's West Los Angeles office.

On a typical day, health inspectors write up dozens of violations--from excessive cockroach infestation to faulty plumbing and improper food handling. But over the last few years, the Westside office, as well as the others throughout the county, have faced increasing pressures.

Funding cuts have hit the county Environmental Health Division, which includes inspectors of food facilities. This has resulted in the loss of four of 15 positions in the Westside office.

Meanwhile, some restaurants, hard-hit by the recession in the early 1990s, have cut costs by reducing maintenance. An influx of immigrants to the region has sparked a proliferation of ethnic restaurants that often employ unique food preparation practices that clash with county regulations. And last year's earthquake required the deployment of dozens of extra environmental health inspectors to help check the extensive structural damage sustained by food-based businesses.

The county closes about 50 restaurants a month, almost double the number 10 years ago, said Carl Charles, director of the county's Environmental Health Division. The West Los Angeles office receives about 180 complaints a month from the public, up from about 130 complaints a decade ago, said Charles.

Despite the declining resources and increased workload, Byrne and others say the county has managed to keep the region's restaurants and food markets relatively clean.

"Over the years we've protected hundreds of thousands of stomachs and maybe even a few lives," he said. "We've prevented any backsliding in restaurants which could have become a significant threat to the public's health."

Terrance Powell, a supervisor at the county Department of Environmental Health's Westside district office, said: "We have played a vital role in preventing illnesses. When we are doing our job no one knows it--when we are not, then we become part of the spotlight and that hasn't happened."

Byrne's recent rounds illustrated the demands and importance of a health inspector's work.

The first stop is at Tommy's Original World Famous Hamburgers in Santa Monica. Within minutes, Byrne checks the paper towel dispenser, looks for mold in the soft drink dispenser nozzle and tests the temperature of the hot water faucet in the kitchen sink.

"I can almost tell the (temperature) of the water by feel," he said as he rubbed his fingers in the flow. County law demands that water temperature be at least 120 degrees to ensure that bacteria is killed when employees wash their hands.

With a quick thrust, Byrne plunges his thermometer into some refrigerated meat. The temperature hovers just under 45 degrees, which is the county's ceiling on cold food. Next, he measures the temperature of chili simmering in a pot--also acceptable at 150 degrees, 10 degrees above the county health requirement for hot food.

He then checks a large room, which serves as the freezer, to make sure food is off the floor, looks in the storage area with a flashlight for any meat being improperly thawed and checks for liquid soap in the restrooms. "Sometimes I wish I had a third hand," he said.

He catches a few violations. At Tommy's, the windows remain open as customers are being served. Open windows can allow bacteria-carrying flies and other insects to enter the kitchen. Some garnishments and a tray of hot dogs are not covered in the refrigerator.

Byrne, who like most inspectors has a bachelor's degree in environmental and occupational health, goes over the violations and hands a copy of his report to the manager, who promises to take care of the problems. All in all, said Byrne, a well-run and exceptionally clean facility.

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Next stop is Muscle Beach Burger in Santa Monica Place. The restaurant was temporarily closed for cockroach infestation in July, 1994, and was reopened after nearly a dozen violations were corrected. There were no violations during a reinspection a few months ago. But on this visit, the owner will not allow a reporter to enter, so Byrne proceeds to the next establishment, telling the manager that another inspector will return at a later time. Nearby is Croissant de Paris, a restaurant and bakery offering soups, salads, sandwiches and desserts. Byrne drops to his knees and tries to stick a pen under the rear door to see if a rat can make it through the opening. (A rat can flatten itself to one-quarter of an inch). The door is tight. He looks for greasy smudge marks along the walls, another possible sign of rodents.

The temperatures of the soup and salads are correct, but a special meat thermometer equipped to measure temperatures of 140 to 180 degrees is misplaced in a display case of refrigerated desserts.

Byrne trains his flashlight toward a dark corner on the floor and comes across a sprinkle of mice droppings--a serious violation. He also notes the frayed rubber gaskets around the refrigerator door and dust buildup on the ventilator hood above the oven. Food particles cover the floor.

After the inspection, Byrne reviews the violations with the manager and sets up a time for reinspection, a typical procedure.

"He's one of the best and we appreciate what he's doing," said Tamara Gozarkhah, the manager of the shop. "He knows what's wrong and next time we will make everything OK."

Most of the time, Byrne said, he seeks to educate owners and managers about health regulations. The relationship is more cooperative than adversarial.

However, if the violations are not corrected, the owners of the food establishments are called in for a meeting at the health department. If no corrective action is taken by the owners, the county files criminal misdemeanor charges that carry a fine of $1,000 or six months in jail. Rarely do cases go that far. Byrne says that during his stint as an inspector, only a handful of cases reached that stage.

Given the concentration of chic, expensive restaurants on the Westside, one might think that Byrne's and his fellow inspectors feel added pressure. After all, the region's gastronomically sophisticated and fickle public has been known to flee a trendy eatery on the basis of one tepid review. But Byrne said a restaurant's reputation is irrelevant to him and his colleagues.

"You can have the same amount of violations in a fancy restaurant as there are in a small diner on the corner. You have to take each one on an individual basis," he said. "When I first went to Chinois on Main, I'd never even heard of Wolfgang Puck and never felt intimidated. It was just another restaurant."

Yet, over the years, Byrne has accumulated his share of war stories. He talks of a mom-and-pop grocery store that was selling numerous bags of potato chips, rice cakes and candy that had been chewed on by rats and had their droppings left inside. Then there was the restaurant owner who swore he had no cockroach problem until Byrne lifted a crate and hundreds of the insects scampered about, some up the owner's pant legs. And Byrne will never forget the sewage line that belched ankle-deep sludge in the work area of a diner. The employees kept serving and the customers kept eating despite the overwhelming stench.

"When I got there, I was dumbfounded. I said, 'You have to stop immediately--go no further,' " Byrne said.

He also savors the typical excuses from the operators of many restaurants, great and small. Some of his favorites:

* "It's always been like this--for 20 years."

* "The other inspector said it was OK!"

* "Every place has a cockroach problem."

Byrne's fellow inspectors have also faced their share of challenges.

One particularly worrisome case faced Brigitte Scholl, who received a tip three weeks ago about suspicious activity at a residence in the 1000 block of Corning street near Beverly Hills.

Behind an expensive two-story Spanish-style house with a well-manicured lawn, inspectors found a chicken deboning operation in a garage and adjoining shed operated by a group of Chinese immigrants.

More than 300 pounds of chicken were found at room temperature with no facilities for running water or refrigeration. Chicken kept in such conditions can produce deadly bacteria such as salmonella and staphylococcus. Some of the produce lay in open pails not far from cans of insecticide and motor oil. Inspectors also found hundreds of flies and rat droppings as thick as incense sticks.

"The stench was horrible, like a stack of old wet clothes that had been left in the laundry for two months," said Powell, the chief Westside health inspector.

The health department is filing criminal complaints against the owner of the house and the owners of two Chinese restaurants that were receiving the produce.

In addition to inspecting markets and restaurants, the Environmental Health Division's Westside office also employs an inspector, Dianne Lee, to monitor the region's 62 food processing manufacturers and 10 food warehouse distributors. Lee inspects places such as nut, candy and potato chip factories, company cafeterias and catering trucks, as well as bread and bakery distributors.

Her duties reflect the challenges of working in multiethnic Los Angeles. She regularly enforces regulations on sea urchin processing, "wet" tofu production and kimchi manufacturing.

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During one investigation, Lee caught a Westside manufacturer placing large amounts of tomatoes for salsa into an industrial sink that had been jury-rigged to blow the vegetables through the garbage disposal into a large pail below.

Last year's Northridge quake brought health inspectors additional complications. In the month after the temblor, nearly 10,000 inspections of food facilities and apartment dwellings were made for structural problems on the Westside alone. Another 13,000 were completed through the end of the year.

It's no wonder Byrne feels glad to still be standing.

"The process definitely works, but it would be nice to have a few more inspectors," he said. "The more frequent the inspections, the cleaner the kitchens and the better for public safety."

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Where to Call

If you encounter a potential sanitation problem at a restaurant, here are the numbers to call to alert county health inspectors:

* Hollywood, West Hollywood, Wilshire area: (213) 871-4353.

* West Los Angeles: (310) 315-4579.

* Malibu: (310) 317-1317.

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