KEARNEYSVILLE – Ever wonder, just how greasy is that greasy spoon you enjoy so much?
Just recently the Jefferson County Health Department in Kearneysville began posting food-service inspection reports online to help anyone determine just how safe and sanitary any of the county’s 400 restaurants and eateries might be.
Those inspection reports cover not only restaurants and taverns but also grocery stores, school cafeterias, farmer’s markets, grab-and-go retail stops and mobile food trucks—any establishment that serves up hot or cold food to the public.
“We just want to give the public more knowledge about the type of things that we look at and what’s going on in the restaurants in our county,” offered Gillian Beach, the county’s head sanitarian. “Most of our establishments do a very good job when it comes to food safety and food handling and training.”
Many people are curious to know a restaurant’s food safety record before selecting one as a favorite place to enjoy family meals or a special anniversary celebration, Beach said.
Certainly, Beach and her team of three sanitary inspectors know firsthand where any dirty forks in Jefferson County are buried. But, alas, she declined, “We’re not allowed to talk about any specific establishment.”
Starch white tablecloths can be deceiving, so they say.
That’s where the online food inspection reports come in. Those reports allow anyone to judge for themselves just how safe a visit to their favorite restaurant might be.
People can search the web page for food inspections based on a particular food establishment’s name, and the site lists establishments by name in alphabetical order.
The website has inspection reports dating back to July 2018, and will continue to add the findings of new inspection reports as they occur, Beach said. But she cautions that any food-service establishment could be caught with violations during an unannounced inspection. Inspectors are rigorous and picky.
“People often tend to think if a restaurant has a critical or a priority violation that they don’t want to eat there,” she said. “You’re going to have critical or priority violations, and it’s not something that should keep you from eating in a restaurant. What you should look for more is that the restaurant is correcting those violations as soon as possible.”
Peril in the Pie?
Food safety inspectors are working to prevent a host of potential foodborne illnesses from a multitude of menacing microbial bacteria ranging from salmonella to Escherichia coli to listeria.
“We’re trying to prevent all kinds of things,” she said.
Beach advises discriminating consumers to keep in mind that each inspection report represents a “snapshot” of a certain day and time. Inspections occur when a food-service establishment is open and busy serving the public.
“It doesn’t necessarily give the whole picture of what that restaurant normally operates like,” she said of a single inspection’s findings.
On any given day, a restaurant could have fewer or more food safety violations occurring than are noted in its last inspection report. So look for a pattern of whether a restaurant or food establishment has an overall commitment to cook and safely handle food, Beach suggested.
Common violations inspectors look for would be cooking food thoroughly, whether food is held at the appropriate hot or cold temperature and whether food employees wash their hands frequently and sufficiently.
When Beach goes to a restaurant off the clock with family or friends, whether employees handling food are wearing gloves is a violation she notices most. Another issue is when an employee serves a paying customer at a cash register but then returns to handling food without washing his or her hands.
A review of a few inspection reports on the health department’s website found critical violations such as black stains on cutting boards, a blocked sink that should be used for washing hands, stale cooking oil in fryers, freezer defrost falling into ice cream, mounds of beef being thawed in warm water, and a can opener blade that needed to be replaced.
What’s important to keep in mind is whether a place continually repeats those mistakes, Beach said. “Once you get to the point where there are several inspections and if they’re having the same violations that aren’t being corrected or that they continuously have, and that they’re serious violations,” she suggested, “that’s maybe someplace that’s not taking things seriously.”
Food establishments are inspected unannounced up to three times a year based on a risk level determined by how they prepare food for the public. “We want to go when they’re preparing food and serving food so we can see what they’re doing and making sure that they’re doing that properly,” Beach said.
Higher risk establishments are inspected more frequently than lower-risk establishments.
A high-risk level involves restaurants that cook from scratch, which would involve heating and reheating food before it’s served, Beach said.
A fast-food restaurant, like a McDonald’s or a Subway shop, would be a low-risk establishment because they’re heating frozen food once to serve their customers, Beach said. “They’re heating to serve,” she said.
Food safety violations also come in three levels of seriousness, and inspectors follow to check that any problems they find are fixed, Beach said.
The most serious, called “priority” violations, are conditions that if left uncorrected, can lead to passing foodborne illnesses on to patrons. These violations must be corrected right away before an inspector leaves the premises.
“Typically, the restaurant is trying to comply and correct all those violations while we’re there,” Beach said. “So we typically do not have to close restaurants.”
Last summer, however, one food establishment had to close because its air conditioning broke down, which in turn prevented food refrigeration units from maintaining food at the proper cold-storage temperature, Beach recalled.
“They had to throw away a bunch of food,” she recalled.
“Priority Foundations,” the next most serious violations, are matters that, if left uncorrected, could contribute to making patrons sick. Finding a cockroach problem would be a priority foundation under U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines that the county follows, Beach said. That’s likely because such a problem can’t be addressed immediately, she said.
A broken refrigeration unit that’s not sufficiently cooling food, for example, might require time to be repaired or replaced. Inspectors will make sure any food service that continues in the meantime is safe. That could mean only using food from a second, backup refrigeration unit, she said.
The least serious, called “Core Violations” would not directly cause any customer to become ill. If left uncorrected, however, these items could lead to a priority or priority foundation violation.
“What we’re looking for when we’re out there is the higher risk things that they’re doing that need to be controlled,” Beach said.
Sanitarians on the Run
The county’s four sanitarians, including Beach, don’t just do restaurant inspections. They’re also responsible for other duties that include inspecting child care centers, tattoo parlors, hotels and mobile home rentals for health safety in addition to conducting residential specific system inspections.
Meanwhile, food safety inspectors haven’t been able to conduct many inspections during the coronavirus outbreak, Beach said. Addressing the outbreak has consumed a considerable amount of health department staff time.
Inspections, when they do occur during the current outbreak, also must be arranged ahead of time in keeping with new pandemic protocols, Beach said. “We are right now scheduling inspections to make sure they’re limiting staff to essential personnel and that all staff will be wearing masks while an inspector is on-site — for the protection of our employees as well as theirs,” she said.
For these reasons, the food inspection process has relied, in good measure, on the protocols and how serious the establishments take food sanitation themselves.
Beach said the county’s food safety inspectors evaluate whether an establishment has active, ongoing managerial leadership and controls to handle food properly.
Continual staff training on proper food safety, particularly in an industry known for high staff turnover, is also important, she said.
“We’re trying to work to ensure that all of our establishments have good, active managerial controls so it doesn’t come down to our two inspections a year getting them to fix what they’re doing wrong,” Beach said. “We want them to be doing things right all the time.”
Anyone directly involved in or near food preparations, including dishwashers, must receive health department safety instruction before working in a food-service establishment, Beach said. Employees in those positions must obtain a county food handler’s card before they can start work. The cards show that an employee has received the health department’s food safety training, and those cards must be renewed yearly.
“I have very high safety confidence in the restaurants,” she said. “They want to be in compliance and we help them to make sure they are in compliance.”