Fastidious about food

Health inspectors are on the prowl for hazards in Chico’s restaurants

LOOKING GOOD <br>Environmental Health Specialist Kim Haas helps Jeremy Sanders, district manager for the downtown Chico Jamba Juice, calibrate his thermometers. The National Restaurant Association advises its members to do self-checks weekly, looking at the same thing a restaurant inspector will check when he or she pops in unannounced. The worst thing a restaurant owner can do, the organization says, is refuse an inspection.

Environmental Health Specialist Kim Haas helps Jeremy Sanders, district manager for the downtown Chico Jamba Juice, calibrate his thermometers. The National Restaurant Association advises its members to do self-checks weekly, looking at the same thing a restaurant inspector will check when he or she pops in unannounced. The worst thing a restaurant owner can do, the organization says, is refuse an inspection.

Photo by Tom Angel

Just eat it: Food safety experts say chains and schools usually have the fewest violations--chains because everything is so regimented and uniform, and schools because there’s a lot of training and little turnover or profit motive.

“The restaurant inspector is here.” These words could strike fear in the hearts of any eatery owner—but they shouldn’t, say local battlers against botulism and eradicators of E. coli.

The News & Review asked the Butte County Environmental Health Department if we could tag along on some restaurant inspections, and its officials said sure, but only if it was OK with the restaurant owner. We asked four downtown Chico restaurants the county had tagged as having a good history. Three turned us down, but Jamba Juice was game.

So when inspector Kim Haas arrived, Jeremy Sanders, the Jamba Juice district manager, was waiting. He’d come up from Roseville for the occasion.

“Usually, they just show up,” Sanders said. “We’re not nervous. It’s pretty easy to maintain the standards.”

First off, Haas washed her hands. She checked out the little area where employees can leave their snacks. She showed an interest in the orange juicer, and Sanders demonstrated how they take the large machine apart nightly. Haas pointed out that Jamba has 60 days to send someone to a food safety class (a state law since 2000) because a recent shift change left a period of time where no one has that certification. Haas shone a flashlight into trays of pretzels, observed a Ph test of the dish bin containing sanitizer, and then asked if the shop has any probe thermometers.

“Why don’t you pull it out and we can calibrate it?” Haas suggested. They prepared a cup of ice water and plopped the thermometer in. It should read 33 degrees. Haas looked up, raising her eyebrows a tad for the first time in the inspection. “It’s 37.” A quick turn of a wrench by Sanders and it was OK.

“It’s always nice when we can do stuff right away,” commented Haas, who usually sends back a report and makes a return visit.

Haas, a senior environmental-health specialist who has worked for Butte County for 11 years, carries a fanny pack full of thermometers, with different ones suited for different tasks. Like all restaurant inspectors, she has a science degree and state certification.

In the course of doing their jobs, health inspectors can catch food safety violations that could have resulted in food poisoning due to bacteria, viruses and parasites. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, government data indicate that people are twice as likely to report sickness relating from restaurant food than from food prepared at home.

Despite the horror stories of rats in the risotto and cockroaches in the crème brulé, it’s most often the seemingly innocuous things that get customers sick and restaurants in trouble.

Temperatures are a big one. For example, the Food and Drug Administration’s Food Code recommends that water coming out of the sink must be at least 120 degrees, cold storage must be 41 degrees and hamburgers must be cooked to an internal temperature of 155 degrees for 15 seconds to kill E. coli.

“It’s very easy to get focused on obvious things that you can see,” explains Vance Severin, program manager for Butte County’s Division of Environmental Health, interviewed in his office at the City Municipal Building in Chico. “You’ve got to ask questions, observe more.”

Mike Boian, a supervising environmental-health specialist, started Butte County’s food program back in 1983, when there were only two inspectors checking all the restaurants in the county. Now, there are three, plus Boian, who mostly teaches food safety courses.

With an “inventory” of 1,000 to 1,100 places to check—about half of them in Chico—there’s a lot to do. The department’s goal is to inspect each place twice a year, and they’re at one and one-half times a year now. Less than half of the agencies checking restaurants nationwide inspect the same place twice in a year, even though the FDA’s Food Code recommends inspections at least every six months. In Butte County, 85 percent of the cost of the inspection process is covered through fees, while taxpayers pick up the rest as a public benefit.

An inspection here takes 90 minutes on average. “The bigger the place and the more complex the menu the more time it’s gonna take you,” Boian said.

Boian has gone on some inspections that revealed what he calls “a high ‘yuck’ factor.” That would include rodents, mold that had grown a foot high in a restaurant’s basement, and “one place where they must have had a sewage spill.” Once in a while, he’ll catch someone licking his or her fingers. A common but minor violation is when bathrooms don’t have self-closing doors—a rule that dates back to the 1950s.

The big thing inspectors are on the lookout for is “potentially hazardous foods,” which usually turn out to be moist protein products such as soft cheeses, dairy products—even cooked rice. Too-warm cheese is a much bigger health threat than four-legged cheese-eaters scurrying about. “As a true food safety issue, it’s more important to have the food safe,” Boian said.

He lit up when asked if anything in particular gets his goat when he sees it again and again. “My pet peeve has been leaving out dirty or soiled wiping rags. They’re just kind of invisible to the restaurant people.” State law says they’re supposed to be in a bucket of bleach water, as they can be a prime source of cross-contamination.

Usually, the inspectors tell whoever’s in charge of the restaurant to fix the problem right away: throw out the food in the too-cold steam table, for example. They’ll close a restaurant only if there’s an immediate health hazard like sewage backing up, or if a problem hasn’t been corrected after a 15-day notice. “We’ve done it, but not often,” Boian said.

Severin said restaurant owners are hardly ever hostile when they come to visit, although there are always a few who “think you’re trying to put them out of business or it’s a personal thing.” Adds Boian: “There are some people who are having a bad day and we’re the last straw. [Most of them] know from the past our goal is to educate them to do a better job.”

It’s never like the big city, where one might hear about the Mafia or bribes being offered to inspectors. “Sometimes people try to give us food,” Severin said. “They’re just being nice.”

In cities such as Los Angeles or San Diego, you’ll find letter grades plastered on restaurants indicating whether they got an A (a handful of critical violations—the kind that can result in illness), B, C or worse.

But Boian said Butte has decided against a system focusing on letter grades, however beneficial it may seem to the consumer. “It creates kind of an adversarial relationship between the retailer and the department,” he said. Adds Severin: “It would tend to emphasize a little more of the ‘quick fix.'” Restaurant owners, they worry, wouldn’t care if they had 10 violations, as long as that got them an A. “I think the system we have is working,” Severin said.

The Los Angeles Times prints a list of what restaurants have been shut down and why. Some government agencies post inspection results on the Internet or offer a searchable index. But in Butte County, there’s no database to find out who’s been cited for what. If you want to know a restaurant’s record, you have to go down to the Environmental Health Office or ask at the restaurant: They’re required by law to produce it.