Vacancies, vermin, death and disease: L.A.’s restaurant inspectors are in crisis

A person fills out a restaurant rating card with an A grade.
Ngoc McShane, environmental health specialist, updates a yearly food inspection score.
(Alisha Jucevic / For The Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Sunday, March 17. I’m Andrew J. Campa and Happy St. Patrick’s Day 🍀. Here’s what you need to know today:

    Los Angeles County health inspectors stuck in a kitchen nightmare

    In an early season of the hit show “Kitchen Nightmares,” renowned, loud and, at times, over-the-top chef Gordon Ramsey visited a health-conscious eatery in Hollywood.

    He was served entrees that are stale and tasteless, while the owner is aloof and the kitchen staff is uninterested. Then Ramsey finds rotten vegetables, moldy proteins, grass growing from the ceiling and a variety of meats thawing in the same containers when he perused the kitchen.


    “If a health inspector would have witnessed what I witnessed just in one of the fridges, bang, game over,” Ramsey told the restaurant staff, demanding that they clean the shop.

    He pasted a handmade letter “F” over the “A” grade given at one time by inspectors.

    That episode was shot over a decade ago.

    But there is a 2024 crisis within the ranks of Los Angeles County Department of Public Health food inspectors.

    Inspections are dramatically down, morale is low, staff vacancy rates are high. Workers were left reeling last month with the workplace suicide of a 55-year-old health inspector. Others report finding kitchens infested with vermin made rampant by fewer inspections, The Times’ Rebecca Ellis reported.

    Sobering numbers

    There are roughly 18,000 “high-risk” food facilities in the county that the health department should have been inspected three times last year, but fewer that 2% were, internal county records reviewed by Rebecca showed. Exactly 5,365 were never inspected at all.

    In 2019, inspectors visited nearly 12,000 of the riskier food facilities three times, the county said.


    The Westin Bonaventure’s main kitchen hadn’t been inspected for eight months when an outbreak of Shigella, a bacterium that can spread through infected food, hit late last August.

    More than 30 people were infected, with four guests hospitalized and one told by her doctor her kidneys were shutting down.

    Though it’s impossible to say more inspections could have prevented the outbreak, health experts say inspections serve a critical role in preventing such occurrences.

    Inspections aren’t ramping up, however, in large part because of the critically low number of inspectors.

    Although the county has a budget for 244 field inspectors, it has only 69 positions filled, with 27 inspectors in training. The “industry-wide lack of qualified applicants” has crippled public health goals, a department spokesperson said.

    The department also blamed the COVID-19 pandemic, which overburdened health departments nationwide with employees now asked to enforce new safety protocols. Many resigned.

    Where the wild things are


    When inspectors returned to the Westin Bonaventure in September, they found eight live German cockroaches, one dead American cockroach and roughly 20 fruit flies.

    Michael Matibag, a six-year employee of the health department, said he’s struggled to get to high-risk restaurants even once a year.

    When he made it to the kitchen of a Korean gastropub in La Verne in October, he said rats had thrived in his year-long absence.

    “I’m talking like 50 pieces of individual rat feces,” said Matibag, who said that he wanted to see his division better run. “Fifty pieces of rodent dropping isn’t going to happen overnight.”

    The L.A. County Assn. of Environmental Health Specialists hold a vigil for their colleague Heather Hughes.
    (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

    A death in the family


    On Feb. 13, a swarm of furious employees confronted Barbara Ferrer, director of the public health department, after a longtime inspector, Heather Hughes, took her own life at her office building.

    Employees raised long-standing concerns. Trust in management had eroded. One employee said she’d filed 34 grievances. Another said they felt like a damaged “zombie.”

    “We’re extremely stressed out. We feel, to be honest with you, very abused and mistreated,” one employee said.

    For more on the trials faced by county inspectors, please click here.

    The week’s biggest stories

    Police officials say thieves from South American nations have entered the U.S. for the purpose of committing robberies.
    (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

    Crime and Courts

    Politics and government

    Arts, music and food


    Environmental issues and weather

    More big stories


    Get unlimited access to the Los Angeles Times. Subscribe here.

    Column One

    Column One is The Times’ home for narrative and long-form journalism. Here’s a great piece from this week:

    Steven Spiegel, left, next to his brother Alan, holds a LeBron James rookie card
    (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

    To Steven Spiegel, they were all low-ball offers for the LeBron James rookie card he and his brother Alan bought in 2014 — $70,000, $80,000, $90,000. No matter that they’d purchased it for $35,000. Steven had a strong conviction that it was a “million-dollar card.” Before the card was set to be auctioned off, however, the listing was pulled by Goldin Auctions, a New Jersey-based powerhouse in the world of sports memorabilia. According to the Spiegels’ complaint, just after the card was pulled from the auction, they spoke by telephone with an executive from Upper Deck, the Exquisite Collection manufacturer, who told them: Somebody has a “vendetta against you.”

    More great reads

    How can we make this newsletter more useful? Send comments to


    For your weekend

    An illustration of a human looking out toward a sunsetting, mountainous landscape.
    (Jovana Mugoša / For The Times)

    Going out

    Staying in

    L.A. Affairs

    Get wrapped up in tantalizing stories about dating, relationships and marriage.

    A man and a woman holding hands and luggage dash across a stage
    (Nikko De Leon / For The Times)

    I was a teenager getting ready to attend Sequoia Junior High School in Reseda in 1960. My father heard that there was a new drama teacher at the school named Mr. C who was going to put on his first play. Four years later, we were wed. For 57 years, I have loved being married to Robert Carrelli — he’s now 93 — and I’m extremely happy Mr. C made the daring decision to marry his 18-year-old babysitter on March 17, 1967.

    Have a great weekend, from the Essential California team


    Andrew J. Campa, reporter
    Stephanie Chavez, deputy metro editor

    Check our top stories, topics and the latest articles on