Health inspectors: A few signs should send patrons running out restaurant’s door
By Denise Trowbridge For The Columbus Dispatch • Sunday August 31, 2014 7:59 AM
Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.
Believe it or not, there are a lot worse and potentially more-sickening things in restaurants than unintended insects in your food.
Local health inspectors work daily on the front lines making sure restaurants follow the rules and serve food safely. Columbus Public Health, for example, posts signs in restaurants that say they have been inspected and are safe.
But food-safety experts also acknowledge that even good restaurants can have bad days, and they offer advice for consumers — what’s OK and what’s so bad you might want to walk out and find somewhere else to eat.
The worst offense, they say, is employees using their bare hands while preparing your food. That includes putting lettuce on your burger or a lemon in your iced tea.
“Bare-hand contact with food is the leading cause of food-borne illness and outbreaks,” said Garrett Guillozet, a food-safety supervisor with Franklin County Public Health. “If you are in a restaurant and see employees touching food that is directly eaten without being cooked with their bare hands, look out.”
The agency is responsible for restaurant inspections outside Columbus but inside Franklin County, in suburbs such as Bexley, New Albany and Pickerington.
The issue with bare hands comes down to hand washing. What if an employee had used the bathroom, handled money at the register or touched raw meat and had not washed his or her hands?
Inspectors recommend that diners use common sense when assessing a restaurant.
“When you walk in the door, look for cleanliness and if (the restaurant) is well-maintained,” said Robert Acquista, manager of Columbus Public Health’s food-safety program. “Do the servers look neat? Normally, if the owners keep the front of the house clean, they should be keeping it clean in the back.”
Columbus inspects restaurants in the city as well as in Worthington.
“If you don’t see hand-washing, or the utensils or plates are dirty, something is wrong,” Acquista said.
It could mean employees are cutting corners and are not scraping, soaking and sanitizing dishes in the back. And if you see signs of pests or insects, “There probably is an issue, and you should bring it up to management or call us.”
Sometimes, though, it’s what you can’t see that has the potential to make you the sickest.
“We all get grossed out by cockroaches, but those actually may not kill you or make you sick,” said Jose Rodriguez, a spokesman for Columbus Public Health. “Really, it’s food temperature that is critical to public safety. That can make you really sick.”
If food that should be cold isn’t cold enough or food that is supposed to be hot is undercooked or not heated to the proper temperature, dangerous bacteria such as salmonella can take hold and make you sick. It’s the biggest risk, and one that can be difficult to catch.
“It can be hard to tell if your food is the right temperature,” Acquista said. “If you get potato salad, it should be cold, and if it’s not, I would say something. But with hot dishes, it’s harder to tell.”
Complete copies of restaurants’ most-recent inspection reports are posted online, both on the Columbus Public Health and Franklin County Public Health websites. Restaurants’ violations, if there are any, are categorized as “critical” or “noncritical.” Critical issues are those that have the potential to make someone sick.
“If we found a broken cooler and they were serving food out of it, that would be critical,” Acquista said.
Bare hands touching prepared foods also fall into this category.
Noncritical issues might not pose an immediate threat but still need to be addressed. For instance, “a cracked floor tile or a restroom that might be dirty,” Guillozet said.
Columbus restaurants are required to post inspection stickers near the front entrance. Green stickers mean the last inspection was good; yellow means they have received a warning or are in the enforcement process; white means past violations have been corrected; and if it’s red, the restaurant is closed until problems are fixed, Rodriguez said.
Franklin County uses a different system, instead awarding Gold Medal Awards to those restaurants that did well on all of their inspections in the past year.
“Those with no violations, no valid consumer complaints or food-borne-illness outbreaks (earn) a gold-medal sign and sticker to display,” Guillozet said. The list of current Gold Medal establishments is on the Franklin County Public Health website. If your favorite restaurant gets a bad grade, it might not mean you should head for the exit. An inspection report, Guillozet said, is really “a snapshot.”
“Our goal is to help restaurants operate safely and to correct violations,” he said.
But if you see something sketchy, don’t hesitate to say something to a restaurant manager or to your local health department.
“Many times, (consumer complaints) are how we find out about problems,” Acquista said. “We can’t be at every restaurant 24 hours a day, so consumers sometimes are our eyes and ears.”
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