Food safety inspectors regularly show up at NY restaurants

When the food safety inspector walked unannounced into the restaurant’s kitchen, the health violation was obvious and in the air.

A worker had pulled polyurethane-finished dining room furniture into the kitchen and was sanding it down — as food was being prepared.

While most restaurants and other eating places are cited for relatively minor violations, this one prompted the Broome County inspector to order the kitchen closed, the food thrown away and the area immediately cleaned of sanding dust.

Government inspectors across New York show up unannounced regularly at the state's restaurants, school cafeterias, fraternal organizations and even at those food booths lining walkways at summer festivals. The goal: Protect the public from everything from mild stomach ailments to, in rare cases, death from an eating misadventure.

That task ranges from the state Health Department overseeing inspections in the smallest counties to New York City sending out 100 full-time inspectors to check out 24,000 restaurants.

Thousands of eating places need to be inspected in upstate New York: Broome County inspects 869; Monroe County, about 3,000 and Onondaga, 1,797. Erie County last year had 4,267 permanent food service outlets and 2,248 temporary food permitted venues.

But even the pickiest restaurant inspectors making an annual or semi-annual visit won't necessarily play a role in preventing outbreaks of food-borne illnesses, according to research in the field. Instead, required and comprehensive education of food-handlers, with an emphasis on better personal hygiene, would go far, the research notes.

DATABASE: NYS Restaurant Inspections

DATABASE: Erie County Restaurant Inspections


Many consumers may think of the grossest violations, such as rampant rodents or insect infestations, but those type of violations are relatively rare, according to a USA Today Network New York analysis of nearly 1 million violations between 2005 and early this year. The violations data do not include Erie County or New York City.

New York State health regulations break violations down into two categories: red, or critical, items and blue, or non-critical, which tend to cover establishment sanitation, design and maintenance.

The USA Today Network analysis of the violations database showed the top critical violations covered the handling of toxic chemicals, the cold and hot temperatures used in food preparation and potential cross-contamination from raw foods.

Insects or rodents present — a non-critical violation — made up only 3 percent of the total violations over the 13-year period.

The top non-critical violations, the analysis found, were the restaurant being in disrepair or with dirty surfaces; food not protected during storage, preparation, display or transportation; inadequate lighting or ventilation, dirty ventilation and poor design, installation or construction or surfaces and equipment.

When Broome County's three inspectors walk into a restaurant, the staff often is friendly or indifferent, said Matthew Laine, a public health sanitarian who conducts those inspections. Inspections are viewed as "just part of the restaurant business," he said.

Critical violations often require immediate attention and an inspector might wait until all such violations are corrected, said Chris Coddington, director of the Division of Environmental Health Services in the county Health Department. Solutions could range from throwing out food in the inspector's presence or summoning a pest control company.

DATABASE: NYS Restaurant Inspections

DATABASE: Erie County Restaurant Inspections

“The last thing we want to do is close down a facility," he said.

In Ithaca and Tompkins County, with 500 full-service operations and about 400 temporary ones, "restaurants want to make sure their food is safe as well as we do," said Liz Cameron, county environmental health director.

Chemung County inspects more than 300 food service facilities, more than 30 school food operations and 20 mobile food trucks and carts in addition to temporary food providers.

“For every regulation that has been created for establishments that prepare and serve food, there’s usually a reason behind it,” said Thomas Kump, director of the county department of environmental health services.

Coddington, the head of Broome County's inspection program, said the most effective way to prevent violations can be a simple one.

"Education always comes first," Coddington said. Restaurant employees, typically shift supervisors and managers, often take food safety training. The county even has an online course for temporary food handlers, such as special events.

Keeping the public safe from food-borne illness has much to do with temperatures — both hot and cold. Inspectors armed with thermometers and infrared scanners test the temperatures in refrigerators, buffet tables and elsewhere in the food preparation process.

But inspectors often show up only once or twice a year, and heating food to a germ-killing level is essential all the time.

Consider the unpleasant surprise Thanksgiving Day diners had after eating at the Golden Ponds Restaurant and Party House last year in Greece in suburban Rochester.

More than 260 people became ill after their Thanksgiving feast and an investigation by the Monroe County Health Department uncovered the probable source as under-heated gravy on the buffet line promoting the growth of harmful bacteria.

In the five years from 2011 through 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received reports of 4,222 outbreaks and 71,017 food-borne illnesses across the nation, resulting in 4,507 hospitalizations and 116 deaths.

But one study published in the Journal of Food Protection in 2013 suggests periodic government inspections would not have prevented most restaurant illness outbreaks.

Research of the CDC data over time showed more than 6 in 10 of food-borne illness outbreaks reportedly were from restaurants.

The study found food worker health and hygiene accounted for two-thirds of the illness outbreaks at restaurants. Nearly one-quarter of the restaurant outbreaks came from contamination of food products before they reached the restaurants. The remainder were associated with food preparation practices, according to "Contributing Factors in Restaurant-Associated Foodborne Disease Outbreaks" by several public health professionals.

DATABASE: NYS Restaurant Inspections

DATABASE: Erie County Restaurant Inspections

"The pronounced role of food workers in propagating outbreaks makes it clear that more work is needed to address prevention at the local level. Food workers should be instructed not to prepare food while ill to prevent the risk of transmitting pathogens," the study's authors wrote.

In another study on the relationship of food manager knowledge gaps to critical violations, the authors found an "overall restaurant inspection score cannot be relied on as an overarching measure of food safety risk factors within a restaurant. ...Restaurant inspections are relatively infrequent and observe only a small number of relevant behaviors."

One of the study's authors, Mark S. Dworkin, a physician and former state of Illinois epidemiologist, said restaurant inspections very likely protect people against food-borne illnesses but it's hard to prove they protect people against outbreaks.

Often the pathogens are passed from an employee, he said. "That's a major issue for hand hygiene."

Dworkin, now a professor and associate director in the division of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Illinois in Chicago, said wearing gloves during food preparation isn't always the answer. "Clean hands touching foods is safe," he said.

New York State's sanitary code calls for no bare hand contact with food unless it will be heated during the cooking process. Bare-hand contact can be eliminated with suitable utensils, gloves, waxed paper, napkins or equivalent barriers, according to the code.

Gloving policies are variable by area of the country, Dworkin said. But if a preparer is required to wear gloves all of the time it doesn't mean the gloves will be used in a clean manner.

Consider the food preparer making a sandwich and then collecting money without removing the gloves. Or making a stop in the rest room with gloves on.

Many food-borne illnesses in recent years came from foods contaminated before they reach the restaurant.

"Restaurants don't have a mechanism to prevent those kinds of issues," Dworkin said.

For example, the CDC notes outbreaks of the parasite cyclosporiasis — a source of intestinal illness — have been linked to imported fresh produce including raspberries, basil, snow peas, lettuce and cilantro.

Like Broome's Coddington, Dworkin says he's convinced education and educational requirements for food outlet employees go a long way.

"Restaurant inspections are relatively infrequent and observe only a small number of relevant behaviors. Compliance with these critical prevention behaviors often derives from a sound knowledge of food safety principles," according to the study of food manager knowledge gaps by Dworkin and three others in the Food Protection Trends journal.

DATABASE: NYS Restaurant Inspections

DATABASE: Erie County Restaurant Inspections

In New York State, the sanitary code allows jurisdictions to require owners or operators to take training programs, but there are no rules at the state level requiring education. Broome County requires at least one person, typically the owner/operator, to go through training.

However, food safety research has shown education is so important that Illinois requires all front-line food handlers — from restaurant employees to bartenders who handle ice and child care operators who serve food — to complete two hours of state-approved food safety training.

Catherine Counard, director of the Village of Skokie Health Department, was part of a committee that spearheaded those regulations, which went into effect in 2014.

At the time, passing food safety information between managers and employees was cumbersome, Counard said. Some managers traveled across state lines and had differing regulations to remember. Materials weren’t offered in different languages, if at all. And managers weren’t trained in how to teach the basics of food safety to their staff.

“Illinois only had a requirement that the manager receive training. There was no requirement that staff be trained,” she said. “There was an assumption that they would be, but there were no training materials provided.”

Only three other states — California, Texas and Florida — required all food handlers to receive training at the time, she said.

How is the public to learn of restaurant violations? One way is to search the New York State database of violations. Beyond that, different jurisdictions have different practices for publicizing good and bad food providers.

Broome County posts only the most serious offenders requiring enforcement actions on its website. New York City uses its inspection data to come up with a letter grade — A, B or C — that must be posted in restaurant windows.

Corinne Schiff, deputy commissioner for environmental health in New York City, said restaurants have taken the grading system seriously since it was introduced in 2010 and the public has embraced grading. The city even offers an app for mobile phones disclosing a restaurant's grade.

DATABASE: NYS Restaurant Inspections

DATABASE: Erie County Restaurant Inspections

Schiff has seen a tremendous increase in the number of food workers taking food protection classes. About 93 percent of all New York City restaurants have achieved the coveted A grade. Since peaking in 2012, the number of sanitary violations in the city has dropped 41 percent, according to the department.

Coddington in Broome County says his inspectors see "very, very, very few bad operators."

But violations do occur.

At times, Coddington has been out dining with his family when he spots an issue. "If I see a violation, I tell them," said Coddington, who said he'll occasionally walk into the kitchen and identify himself.

© Gannett Co., Inc. 2017. All Rights Reserved


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