How safe is that restaurant food?
Lax standards, poor management can lead to violations

by Ahmad Safi
Sunday, January 4, 2009


Source of Article:

Nearly a thousand people each day eat food from the cleanest kitchen in St. Joseph. Health inspectors consider the food served at Heartland Regional Medical Center to be the best in town. To be served to sick people, it has to be.

Though Heartland, and a handful of other mostly chain restaurants in St. Joseph, have consistently done well during surprise kitchen inspections in the past three years, that’s hardly the norm.

A News-Press review of thousands of health documents for more than 150 restaurants and bars and grills in St. Joseph has found serious violations, such as prescription drugs being seized from a Mexican restaurant, roaches and houseflies living in a kitchen refrigerator at a Chinese buffet, and inspectors being forced to denature discarded foods with bleach so the restaurateurs don’t reuse the food.

At any time, anyone who sells food in St. Joseph can get an unannounced inspection from the St. Joseph-Buchanan County Health Department. Most restaurants, delis and carry-outs are inspected three times per year.

There are just more than 300 establishments in St. Joseph, including school cafeterias, bars and assisted-living facilities.

An inspector’s bad review can shut down an establishment. But that depends on how many so-called “critical violations” are amassed during the inspection.

There are nearly 300 ways a food establishment can get in trouble with the Health Department, and about 125 of those are considered critical violations.

“(But) really, it could be as few as one. If you have an infestation of any type of pest — mice, rats, roaches, flies even — you’re going to get closed,” said Rick Messa, one of the city’s two health inspectors.

A News-Press review of food safety records found four common critical violations: slime in the ice machine, an employee leaving an open personal drink in the kitchen, a dirty slicer and temperature violations — food not holding cold or hot enough.

Mr. Messa said each violation carries a real risk for food-borne illness.

Mold or slime grows best in a moist climate, such as in a restaurant’s unclean ice bin.

An open drink in the kitchen, with each sip by an employee, transfers bacteria from his or her mouth to hand, which may then get into food.

An unclean slicer is the perfect laboratory for bacteria. It takes just four hours for bacteria to grow into a danger area on any food-contact surface.

And the most likely source for a food outbreak is the temperature that food is cooked, cooled and stored. Foods must be kept below 41 degrees or above 140 degrees to prevent bacterial growth.

Mr. Messa said these violations and other less common ones are “90 percent of the time due to laziness.”

While Heartland’s kitchen tops the list as the brass ring in clean dining, one establishment that has had its difficulties is Village Steakhouse & Buffet.

Like many buffets in town, Village has a fat inspection file at the Health Department.

The restaurant was closed twice this past year — once for “gross unsanitary conditions” and the other time to correct cooling unit problems, according to food safety inspections.

Owner and Manager Erich Uhlhorn said in the current tough economic times, locally owned establishments like his are especially hurt.

“I think we just let ourselves get a little bit lax (in 2008),” said Mr. Uhlhorn, who adds he is eyeing a nearly $10,000 cooler unit to bring his restaurant infrastructure up to Health Department standards. “This is my livelihood, and only a fool plays fast and loose with that.”

Mr. Uhlhorn said he also is considering having his staff go through a food safety class, free in-service training that the Health Department says it tells many restaurants about, but few take them up on.

Inspectors also say good restaurant managers are directly related to the cleanliness at any given restaurant. Captain D’s on the North Belt Highway is a prime example.

Up until 2008, Captain D’s never had a critical violation (“one of the cleanest fast-food restaurants”), according to health records dating to 2005. But after a grease fire in June, caused when a kitchen employee became distracted on the phone, the restaurant began to rack up critical violations.

Ryan Seippel, a Captain D’s employee since the early 1990s who took over managerial duties in December 2007, said he feels targeted by the Health Department.

“He (Mr. Messa) comes in, tells me what is wrong and goes away,” said Mr. Seippel, outside the restaurant around noon on Tuesday. “I’ve got one person in the (kitchen) right now. I don’t have a large crew like Cheddar’s.”

Health inspection records show that franchise and chain restaurants such as Cheddar’s, 54th Street Grill & Bar and Red Lobster have near-perfect food safety records.

Mr. Messa said that usually is because nationally owned restaurants have accountability to someone above.

“Where if you’re local, the only responsibility you have is to yourself. And sometimes they don’t have the resources or the money available to do some of the things some of the national chains can do,” he said. “So, for example, to them, replacing a refrigerator unit is a lot more costly, and sometimes they’re reluctant to do that, until we force them to do it.”




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