Most of Orange County's 11,000 restaurants and other food establishments received good marks from county health inspectors last year, and officials said they are hoping increased educational efforts will reduce problems even further.
The county employs 54 inspectors, and officials are hesitant to hire more because it would mean raising fees for restaurant owners, said James E. Huston, assistant director of the county Health Care Agency's environmental health department, in an interview just before his retirement last week.
"Right now we make routine [unannounced] inspections three times a year, and our goal is four," Huston said. "It's a challenge, but we need to increase that number without adding staff."
In addition, Huston said, the department is attempting to reduce the number of restaurant violations with education campaigns, sponsoring programs for business owners and, in rare cases, pursuing legal action against repeat offenders.
"We're becoming more aggressive when it comes to educating food workers," Huston said."And we're trying to deal with the chronic violator in a more forceful manner."
In Orange County last year, inspectors temporarily closed 159 food establishments for severe violations of health codes raging from vermin infestation to unsanitary storage of meats.
The health department also issued 290 violation notices in 1997 for lesser problems, including leaking roofs or clogged drains. If problems in the notices are not corrected, the restaurant can be temporarily shut down.
One of the department's educational projects began about six years ago in Orange, which became the only local city to require an owner or manager of a restaurant with five or more employees to attend food sanitation courses.
Scott Parker, owner of Watson Drug and Soda Fountain in Orange, sends all employees who work in his restaurant to the monthly courses, which are available in several languages upon request.
"We have everybody who handles food go through the course at least once a year," Parker said. "It's been really positive."
Because of budget problems after the county's 1994 bankruptcy, the program has yet to be expanded, Huston said.
But the department has been able to offer periodic countywide courses.
Consumer awareness brochures are available, and the department is considering posting restaurant closures and other information on the Internet.