Today the North County Times (in Vista, California) did an article about local eateries, diners who carefully scrutinize restaurants before venturing in for a bite to eat, and how much work goes into keeping food safe.
From the article:
“I won’t eat anywhere that doesn’t have an A,” said Julie Shipman, who was shopping at Vons supermarket in Vista. “There’s too much going on that you can’t see.”
But getting the grade can take as much preparation as passing the high school exit exam.
For example, an “Awesome Blossom” from the A-rated Chili’s Grill and Bar in Vista Village starts its journey long before an order is placed.
The dish —- a large, hand-battered and fried onion —- is inspected before being deemed meal-worthy, then undergoes a 10-step preparation and cooking process before landing in front of a hungry customer.
First, the onion is cleaned and cut, then refrigerated in a storage container held below 41 degrees. Next, it’s hand-battered by a gloved kitchen worker before being time-cooked at a specific temperature.
“It’s not an easy process, but I can’t say enough how important it is for us to keep an eye on things and make sure food is served properly,” said John Larson, general manager of Vista’s Chili’s location.
The 30-year-old chain has more than 1,000 locations throughout the country and standardizes all of its food preparation criteria for each dish on the menu to minimize safety concerns and variations from one Chili’s location to the next.
“We do a line check four times a day to take the temperatures of all cold and hot products, and we check our equipment to make sure food stays out of temperature danger zones, which can make people sick,” said Larson, adding that the restaurants have kitchen timers set to make sure each dish is properly cooked. The chain also won’t serve hamburgers “rare,” because of concerns about the meat being thoroughly cooked.
“We just don’t want that concern,” Larson said.
While not all restaurant standards are as stringent as Chili’s, keeping operations up and running while paying constant attention to food safety requirements and employee training is no easy task.
Making the grade
The San Diego County Department of Environmental Health is responsible for conducting inspections of all food service establishments. County inspectors visited the 245 graded facilities in Vista more than 662 times in 2004, an average of more than twice a year for each location.
Full-service restaurants are inspected every 90 days, more frequently if requested, and establishments serving only packaged foods, such as some bars, are visited less often. The county also investigates facilities on a complaint basis.
“It’s all based on risk,” said Robert Venter, operations supervisor of the food and housing division of the county Department of Environmental Health. “The more risk, the more frequent inspections.”
Inspectors rate facilities based on compliance with a large number of requirements listed on a food inspection report, which gives a starting score of 200 and deducts points for violations. After deductions are taken, the total is divided by two, giving the final score.
The county revised its reports in May to reflect things that restaurants and other establishments were doing correctly rather than listing only violations, a move that has met with widespread approval from restaurant owners and managers.
“Traditionally, the forms had listed only what’s wrong, but the new ones document positive compliance along with items that need to be corrected,” said Liz Pozzebon, the county’s chief of food and housing. “The new form goes through all the risk factors and intervention strategies, and pats facilities on the back for what they do right.”
Inspection scores translate into letter grades, with an “A” being awarded for a score of 90 to 100 points, a “B” representing 80 to 89 points, and a “C” indicating a score of 70 to 79.
Scores are based on an accumulation of points. Major violations, such as unsafe food temperatures and presence of vermin, require large point deductions, while lesser violations, such as adequate lighting, carry lower point values.
Facilities receiving a “C” grade have 30 days to improve, or face forced closure until a reinspection shows compliance with standards.
“Most people shut down voluntarily, because they don’t want to operate with a ‘C,’ ” Venter said. “They’d rather take care of the problem.”
A breakdown of how many restaurants were rated “A,” “B,” or “C” was not immediately available last week.
Inspectors are permitted to close any establishment on the spot based on a gross violation of any inspection criteria.
“At any time if we find a major violation that is deemed hazardous, inspectors can close the facility,” Pozzebon said. “Facilities that have not-so-good inspection histories may be required to have more frequent inspections until (they) demonstrate (the) ability to adhere to standards.”
Three restaurants closed
Vista’s eateries seemed to fare well last year, with only three facilities closed as of December.
One of the three, Super China Buffet, closed its East Vista Way restaurant permanently in July after being downgraded to a “C” in late June.
The other two closures were a Mexican restaurant and a sandwich shop, both on South Santa Fe Avenue. Both closures were related to broken hot water heaters.
Among critical requirements for a restaurant are hot and cold running water, proper waste disposal, refrigeration and heating practices, cleanliness, purchasing foods from approved sources, and keeping the establishment free of vermin, such as rats and cockroaches.
“The whole idea is to eliminate the potential for foodborne illness based on activities going on in a facility,” Venter said. “You want to keep cold food cold and hot food hot, and make sure that the facility has the capacity for all employees to wash their hands.”
The ‘danger zone’
The “danger zone” for all foods is between 41 and 135 degrees —- the range in which most dangerous bacteria can grow, he said. The dangers include unpleasant and harmful foodborne illnesses such as salmonella, E. coli, shigella and botulism.
Venter said keeping food outside of that range, either colder or warmer, is a must to prevent illness, and it’s one of the major items the department looks for when conducting inspections.
“The contributing factors are improper holding of food, if it’s not hot enough or cold enough,” Venter said. “Food in the so-called danger zone has a much greater risk of growing bacteria that’s dangerous to the public.”
Even if foods are held at proper temperatures, though, other bacteria transmission can occur through improper food handling and cross-contamination from surfaces, utensils or hands.
Regular hand-washing and thorough cleansing of utensils and cutting boards are critical, Venter said.
Buying food from approved sources is a key factor in illness prevention, and one reason inspectors focus on food sources is to enable them to trace the origin and point of contamination.
“Part of that is so we can trace the food back and identify where it came from in case of illness,” Venter said. “Knowing where your food comes from is very important.”
Food supplies from Chili’s, for example, are purchased, inspected and approved through the chain’s corporate headquarters in Dallas.
“We buy from our purveyors through the home office and not from little guys,” Larson said. “The more you follow the procedure, the more you eliminate the possibility for outside problems to occur.”
A part of business
Employees at the Vista location of Wienerschnitzel, a fast-food chain specializing in hot dogs, said inspections are just part of doing business at the busy restaurant, which has a “B” rating.
“It’s just basic upkeep, making sure the food temperature is correct and that everything is clean,” said employee Nydreena Brown, who noted that the most popular menu items were the chili dog and Polish dog with sauerkraut. “(Inspectors) have been here twice in the past two months and everything’s been in great shape.”
Steven Hollick, who has owned and operated Vista’s La Paloma restaurant for eight years, said that good employee training and constant reminders are a regular part of running his business.
“We riddle the employees with weekly memos or notes about precautions, and we’re always reiterating previous precautions,” Hollick said. “Training is probably the most important part of this business.”
To help all operators, and which is especially handy for smaller or novice establishments, the food and housing division provides what Pozzebon called “education-oriented” information and guidelines for restaurant operators.
“We have a lot of guidance materials, like our operator’s guide, that provide not just information but also some tools for safe-food practices,” Pozzebon said. “The approach we’re taking here is trying to help facilities implement good practices so they can be in control of food-safety practices.”
Some establishments welcome the inspections with open arms, looking forward to receiving their report card every three months, officials said.
“I have a wonderful relationship with San Diego Health Department, and that’s because I chose to embrace them and to learn all I could from them, instead of looking at them as just the police,” Hollick said.
The Mexican restaurant has been open for eight years, and Hollick said he often requests more frequent inspections.
“I look at it as a game that I’m going to win, because I want a score of 100 and want to see if we have done everything as well as we thought,” he said. “I want an A on that report card because we’re in a business where sanitation and cleanliness are of the utmost importance. Consumers are very savvy, and they pay attention.”