KIMT News 3 – When you go out to a restaurant or the grocery store you want to know the food you are eating is safe, but outbreaks of bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli can happen. You may even know someone who has been impacted.
Those illnesses can be prevented pretty easily.
The approach area inspectors are taking is changing. They are not popping in unexpectedly as much anymore, but their ultimate goal is still the same as it has always been, to keep the consumers safe and to prevent the spread of those foodbourne illnesses.
There is a good chance you probably want to eat at a restaurant that is not going to get you sick, and some people have their own ways of making that decision.
“I like to see people first when I come in, I don’t need to have my own personal spot. Wherever people are eating I figure it’s a good spot to eat,” said Mark Adams of Rochester.
He said he does not eat out often, but he has had his bad experiences.
“I’ve actually had coffee cups that have had a little coffee in them, just because it didn’t get to the wash,” Adams said.
He said that is one of his no-nos.
“That should be a must, your silverware being clean,” Adams said.
Are we as consumers looking at the right things?
Area health inspectors say a dirty floor is not going to have you leaving queasy.
“Those kinds of conditions are really only indicators, but they are indicators of a bigger thing,” said Mike Melius, Olmsted County Environmental Health Manager, “Is the business well-managed and is the manager in control of food safety?”
If that is the case, then what should we be looking for?
“Is the cold food cold? Is the hot food hot? Do the employees appear healthy? That’s something you can look for. Are they employees washing their hands from what the customers can see? You might see an employee in the restroom, are they washing their hands? That’s a huge factor in terms of preventing foodbourne illness,” Melius said.
Those are just some of the things that restaurant inspectors Melius are looking for during their check-ups. In their case, they have got a little more access than we do.
“We actually have a variety of way that we can do the inspection. One of the most effective ways early on in an establishment inspection is to schedule the inspection, that way we know that the manager is available. He is going to be there, or she is going to be able to take action, have the authority to make changes,” Melius said.
The reason that some agencies do it this way is because they want to emphasize the importance of training.
“The majority of foodbourne illnesses that are caused, at least in restaurants or retail settings, is caused by behavior, whether it be improper cooking, or hand washing, or staying home when you’re sick,” said Daniel Ries, Senior Environmental Health Specialist for Cerro Gordo County.
Norovirus is the most common restaurant virus and the most common cause of outbreaks. Again, it is not coming from dirty tables or menus.
“We know that what causes Noro is employees working with vomiting or diarrhea, or shortly after they’ve been ill and not washing their hands, so those two risk factors play a huge role, they’re at the top of our list,” Melius said.
With all of this in mind, these inspectors say there is still value in a surprise visit, whether it is for follow-up on a previous stop or to simply check in.
“We still feel that there is some benefit to doing the unscheduled inspections because you see their operation as it is on a day-to-day basis,” Ries said.
All of their work is public information, but how you access that information varies.
In Iowa, the reports are listed on the Department of Inspection and Appeals’ website.
You are able to search by license type, name of the restaurant, address, city and even county. A couple more clicks and you can look at the report.
Otherwise, state law requires them to be posted in the facility where the public can see them. Ries said not everyone is good about doing that, which may be a hint about the quality of the restaurant.
In Minnesota there is no law like that and there is a little more work to do.
The state’s department of health actually does the inspections for about 55 of Minnesota’s counties, and around 30 counties or large cities do their own inspections.
Olmsted County is one of those who does their own inspections, but the other counties in our area rely on the state’s office out of Rochester. To access those reports, you must call that office and put in your request.
Depending on how many you are looking for, they can have it faxed or emailed your way in a few minutes. That, of course, is only possible during business hours.
They say that they are looking into an online database because of increasing demand, which is good news for our area inspectors who want you to keep yourself informed.
“We’re in there a miniscule amount of time compared to their hours of operation,” Ries said.
These inspectors say the burden of keeping restaurants safe also lies on us as consumers. Just like employees should not be showing up for work sick or shortly after they have been sick, neither should you. They say that is another major contributor to the spread of these restaurant illnesses.
Melius also said that most of the restaurant owners and operators they do these inspections with want to improve.
Olmsted County has won a prestigious award for their approach to inspections. It is called the “Samuel J. Crumbine Award” and it is given out once each year between the U.S. and Canada.