When Good Food Goes Bad

Health dept. check list
photograph by John Anderson

Let's hope you food sanitation neophytes out there already know this, but good food can turn very, very bad when it sits at the wrong temperature for too long -- so bad, in fact, that it can kill you. On its way from the pasture (or garden) to the dinner table, a multitude of mishaps can transform what should be a delightful dinner into a visit to the portals of Gastric Hell (or, under just the wrong conditions, the county morgue). Nobody -- the rancher, the grower, the supplier, the chef -- wants this to happen; it's really bad for business. But the group who wants it to occur the least is the one entrusted with ensuring a safe and wholesome food supply: our friends at the Austin/Travis County Health Department (A/TCHD).

Protecting the food supply can be a daunting job, and one that gets harder as the Austin area grows, the quality of our food supply diminishes from less frequent federal and state inspections of the raw product, and restaurants proliferate. Next to Laredo, Austin is the fastest-growing market in the state, with an increase in food sales of 12.5% last year.

The task is no less daunting for the restaurateur, who must balance safety, quality, and finance while dealing with the high-pressure job of putting out a consistent, appetizing product daily. Add to this the difficulty of keeping the restaurant staffed with motivated, high-caliber workers in a competitive job market, suppliers who occasionally try to slip in less-than-fresh product, and the threat of impending health inspections under a changing health code, and you have restaurant chefs and managers stressed to the limit.

Sometimes it can seem like a war -- not so much a war between the A/TCHD and the restaurants, since they actually have common goals, but a battle between the people whose business is food and the countless armies of microbes and bacteria and proteins.

Last fall saw a major change in the way this war is being fought. The Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department announced a six-month moratorium on regular inspections beginning November 1, 1998, while the health department implemented its new streamlined inspection procedure. Unscored inspections would continue during the interim, but restaurants would not be penalized while geting up to speed on the long overdue revisions to the inspection code.

The old code had been in place since 1976 -- 23 years without alteration. It was being revised to comply with the new guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and, in turn, the State Health Department codes. By law, the county health departments in the state must comply with the state rules, but individual city departments have the option of writing their own codes. Since the health department for Austin and Travis County acts basically as a single unit, there was no question that the same code would be adopted for both.

Picture of contaminated chicken
photograph by John Anderson

In the new code, more emphasis would be placed on the time and temperatures of food storage and preparation, and the possibility of cross-contamination, and less on structural misgivings. The old inspection form had 44 different items that could affect the outcome of the inspection, with point deductions based on importance and criticality. These included things such as holes in screen doors, unclean ceiling tiles, and not using shatterproof light bulbs in the kitchen. Under the new form, 23 of those items became "page two" categories, and most of those were related tangentially to structural items. A page two item can still refer to a critical problem and demand immediate action, but for the most part, page two items are non-graded. The new form begins with five items worth five points each, or 25% of the total score, that directly relate to Potentially Hazardous Food Temperature Requirements. The next nine items, worth 36% of the total, deal directly with Personnel and Hygiene, Food Handling and Cross-Contamination, and Safe Sources of Food. The last third of the form (13 issues, or 39% of the total) deals with Facility and Equipment Requirements. At last, the inspection was putting emphasis where it really needed to be.

After the new plan was formulated, A/TCHD had to disseminate it to all 3,765 food establishments in town (including bars, grocery stores, icehouses, day care centers, schools -- in short, anyone providing the public with food service). Then, it would have to give every one of them nongraded, educational inspections to bring them up to speed before the new inspections under the new code could begin in earnest.

I first heard about the round of unscored inspections on Channel 36. I must confess that I never missed the weekly reports from Jolene DeVito on the best and worst of the past week's inspections. There's a bit of a sickness in all of us that revels in the reports of the losers. We love to see the squirming kitchen or restaurant manager onscreen, trying to put a positive spin on the horrible score they just received. And we tend to discount the best scores because they're almost always from some sterile national chain in a freestanding location with flavorless food.

To DeVito's credit, she was extremely fair about reporting on how low-ranking restaurants did on follow-up inspections, unlike the sensationalistic competitors from the other stations in town that tried to best Channel 36 at the game. So often, television stations try to portray coverage of poor health inspection grades as a response to some public health threat. But of the countless meals served in Travis County during fiscal year 1997-98, just 284 foodborne illness incidents were reported, and only 56 of those were confirmed cases involving 173 individuals. Hardly statistics that support the amount of airplay given to the perceived threat. Such reportage breeds public paranoia for the sake of ratings.

Advance information about the change in inspection procedures was sketchy at best, and it didn't take long for rumors to circulate through the restaurant realm. Stories spread that jackbooted, militaristic inspectors were to be the new standard; that inspectors had been overheard bragging about how much product they had forced restaurant managers to throw away; that a hot and heavy competition was underway between inspectors to see how much havoc they could cause for restaurants. One rumor said that restaurants would be required to produce "blueprints," or food-production flow charts, which followed each tiny component of the menu from the back door of the delivery truck to the customer's plate. Inspectors would be like Orwellian efficiency experts with stopwatches, timing employees' hand washing to make sure they washed for a full 20 seconds and used an approved sanitizing solution. As with most rumors, there was a smidgen of truth below the surface, but most of the stories were greatly exaggerated.

Once the inspection procedures were complete, A/TCHD made numerous presentations about them throughout the food service community. According to an article in Restaurant and Hospitality Magazine, many of the other 4,000-plus regional health departments nationwide haven't been this outgoing or informative. They merely sent out a mailer, changed the code and inspection form, and resumed business as usual, putting all responsibility for compliance squarely on the shoulders of their inspectees. They even charged the food handlers for the new code book, instead of giving it away free, as A/TCHD does.

In early February, I had the opportunity to go to a presentation that the health department made at the monthly meeting of the Austin Restaurant Association. The huge room was packed with restaurateurs, and they all seemed a little edgy; one could hear, in low, hushed tones, grumbling and indistinct carping. The meeting began with a few horror stories, tales of culinary conundrums, things that shouldn't have happened but did.

Keith Wildes was the first A/TCHD speaker. Wildes' approach was at first financial, which is a smart road to take with a group of restaurant managers, since the wallet is connected directly to their brains. He made the point that tighter temperature control could help the bottom line, that when you compared the cost of a foodborne illness to a restaurant in our litigious society to the cost of compliance with the new code, the ratio was quite favorable. A lawsuit settlement in Texas averages $75K, assuming that a death isn't involved, and that doesn't factor in the business lost from bad publicity. A Roper poll commissioned by Restaurant Hospitality Magazine in 1995 determined the number one factor that diners considered in making a return visit to a table-service restaurant was cleanliness -- not value, quality, atmosphere, or service. The dining public votes with their pocketbooks, and with increased media coverage of tainted food outbreaks, the public has become more paranoid about what, and where, they eat.

By the time the meeting was almost over, the grumbling had been replaced by honest, legitimate questions, and the health department representatives made a pledge to research any unanswered questions so that they could be included in the new guidebook. At my table was an old high school buddy of mine, Richard Santos. He ran the Uptown Enchilada Bar for years, and now he manages for the Adam Gonzalez Serrano's empire. I asked him how he felt about the changes, now that the info session was over. "At first, we were all a little freaked out by the whole thing," he admitted. "We'd heard the same rumors that everyone else had. But after hearing these guys today and finally getting some real information, I don't think it'll be that big of a change. We were already doing most of this stuff anyway. If anything, it should help profits."

Most restaurateurs feel they're immune from a foodborne illness outbreak in their establishment, and statistically they're correct. But 33 million people came down with a foodborne illness last year (a figure which has doubled in the last two to three years), and 9,000 people died as a direct result. Those statistics certainly got my attention, and made me glad that I deal with plants and words now, instead of cooking for the masses.

I approached the A/TCHD brain trust after the meeting, introduced myself as a reporter for the Chronicle, and told them that I was very interested in going along on several of the nongraded, consultative restaurant inspections. "No problem!" they said, but first I would have to audit the food manager's certification class in order to be well versed in the guts of the restaurant sanitation process. I had taken the class before, in my days as a chef, but since I hadn't renewed my certificate, it had lapsed.

Back in 1967, when I was in high school and worked at a McDonald's, every restaurant worker had to have a "food card." You went to the health department and had a blood test to check for sexually transmitted diseases and hepatitis, and a chest X-ray for tuberculosis. It certified that on that one particular day, you weren't a public health menace, and it was basically worthless.

Times have sure changed. Now, all retail food service operations in the city are required to have at least one person on staff (or one person for every four franchise operations) who has been trained in the food manager's certification program. It's that person's job to pass the information on to their staff and self-regulate their establishment. But if you already have a certificate, you can just mail in a renewal form every few years and you'll never have to go through the program again. It sounded a little incomplete to me. It seems to me, as well as to the folks at the A/TCHD, that everyone should be brought up to speed, especially with a new code in place. But those decisions were made at a level higher than the county office. And forcing some 3,000 folks to go back through the class would present a logistical nightmare.

I was to show up at the City Learning Resource Center at the new airport for 14 hours of classroom instruction, followed by a two-and-a-quarter-hour test. Students can take the test twice to make a score of 75%, but they must repeat the class if they don't pass the second time. My contacts at the A/TCHD told me that they don't care how long it takes for someone to pass; the main thing is that they learn the information. The class I attended included individuals from all corners of the food service realm: restaurants, taco stands, day care centers, coffeehouses, you name it.

We started with the microbiotic world of the microorganism. It's a dark, mysterious world inhabited by bacteria, the toxins they produce, a smattering of viruses, and a parasite or two in the non-micro category. Bacteria are the biggest culprits. Give them a high-protein food source, a high amount of available moisture, the proper pH, and the wrong temperature for the right amount of time, and you've got trouble. You'll notice oxygen wasn't mentioned in the equation. That's because aerobic bacteria, which need air to survive, have to live near the surface of food and are therefore the easiest to kill. Anaerobic bacteria don't need free oxygen for growth. An especially insidious microorganism called Clostridium botulinum, which produces a nerve poison that can cause death, represents them. It is most commonly found in improperly processed canned goods. The facultative microorganisms do the largest amount of damage. They're very adaptable, and adaptability isn't a safe property for microbes to posses.

It should come as no surprise that microorganisms that invade the human body would grow there. Foodborne-illness microorganisms thrive between 70ºF and 120ºF, and at 98.6º, they can divide and double their numbers every 20 minutes. The longer these organisms are in the optimum temperature range, the more dangerous they become. Four hours is the absolute maximum in the danger zone. All bacteria die at 140ºF, but toxins could be left behind in the form of their waste products. Freezing the bacteria doesn't kill them; it just slows them way down, especially if they are in spore form. Did you ever see the movie The Thing, the original one from the Fifties? These bacterial spores sit around waiting for advantageous conditions to develop, and then it's off to the races.

When people get sick from a foodborne illness, it may be from an infection or an intoxication. Infections are caused by live bacteria on food and usually take one to two days to manifest themselves in some unpleasant way. They're slow to occur and slow to cure, which is a bad thing. Intoxications are caused by bacterial waste products, which are colorless, tasteless, and odorless, but poisonous all the same. They'll cause trouble much faster, as quick as two to three hours after consumption. But the silver lining of this gastrointestinal cloud is that they're quick to occur and quick to cure.

Another danger in the food chain are infections by viral forms; the most common of these is Hepatitis A. It's an insidious disease affecting primarily the liver. The problem from a public health point of view is that hepatitis has an incubation period of anywhere from 10 to 50 days, making it very difficult to track backward. What did you eat, and with whom did you come into contact during the last month and a half? Still thinking? Chances are you shook hands with, or were waited on by (or cooked for) an infected carrier whose personal hygiene wasn't up to snuff. That's why so much emphasis is placed on the 20-second hand-washing procedure, followed by a healthy dose of hand sanitizer. Other possible sources of viruses in foods are raw oysters and improperly cooked clams or mussels (shellfish can also transmit Vibrio bacteria or Norwalk virus). That's why it's important for all shellfish to come from approved sources and for restaurants to keep the tags from the shellfish containers on file for 90 days. It gives the health department sleuths at least a fighting chance. And while we're talking about viruses, just for the record absolutely no evidence exists to suggest that HIV can be transmitted as a foodborne illness.

There are also a few parasites to deal with. They're not microbial, but they can cause just as much pain. Parasites turn the whole game around; they get their nutrition from eating you. Trichinosis (Trichinella spiralis) is a roundworm that can spread through the body. Most of us associate it with swine, but it's rarely found in commercial pork today. However, the next time you go to that cookout at your friend's place to eat the boar or feral hog (or any of some 40 other wild animals) he shot on his hunting lease, ask how long it was cooked above 155ºF. Anisakiasis is another roundworm that likes the human body as a host or food source. It's most commonly found in saltwater fish from temperate waters. Did I just put you right off your sushi? Not to worry, because sushi-grade seafood must be frozen to -31ºF for at least 15 hours to be considered safe, and the vast majority of it is.

Chemical contamination can be just as dangerous to the diner as microbugs, if not more so. Spilled detergent or disinfectant will kill microorganisms, but it can also kill people. For this reason, chemicals must be in clearly marked containers and stored in separate areas far from those where food is prepared. Less apparent are pesticides, both those applied inside the restaurant to kill insect pests and those applied on food in the field before harvest. Are they approved and applied according to safety regulations? If not, their presence in foodstuffs can pose a serious threat to the body. The same may be true of chemical additives in food: MSG, sodium nitrites, sulfating agents, and such.

Cross-contamination is a common method of transmitting foodborne illness. It can occur in a myriad of ways: Infected workers can transmit staph or hepatitis to food while handling it; meat juices from uncooked product in the walk-in cooler can drip onto washed lettuce that is prepped and ready to go out to the salad bar; a worker might use the same knife or cutting board to cut the lettuce as he used to prep the poultry. A new trend in restaurant equipment is color-coded cutting boards and knife handles, meant to prevent just such an occurrence. But cross-contamination can also be one of the easiest avenues to remedy, by merely washing and sanitizing the hands, tools, and work area after each job, and making sure the cold-storage areas are well arranged.

Diners can help protect themselves from foodborne illnesses by keeping their eyes open when they eat out. Never eat at a restaurant that doesn't start you out with a fresh bowl of salsa on the table. It's similar to that famous Seinfeld episode when George got caught double-dipping his chip. And dirty plates are never supposed to be taken back for a refill at a buffet; always get a new plate. In fact, there should be a monitor at the buffet assuring you not to reuse a plate. Also, look to see that the serving spoons at the buffet are kept hot, in the food they're serving, not sitting out on a plate getting lukewarm, where they could possibly become a carrier for gastritis.

All this and more was covered in the 14 hours of A/TCHD instruction. And after once again cramming my head full of more than I ever wanted to know about the dark side of food service, I was at least ready for the big test. We were given two-and-a-quarter hours to answer 75 multiple choice questions. Most of them were pretty straightforward, but there were a few that were diabolically tricky. Instructor Keith Wildes told me later that "at the end of the allotted time, there were several in the class that hadn't even finished all the questions, much less answered them correctly. They'll see me again."

Article 4477-3 of Vernon'sTexas Civil Statutes defines a sanitarian as a "person trained in the field of sanitary science to carry out educational and inspectional duties in the field of environmental sanitation." Field sanitarians for the A/TCHD must be college graduates, preferably in a related field, such as biology or microbiology, with a minimum of 15 credit hours in a science. (A new bill, HB1838, which has just been sent to Governor Bush to be signed into law, will double that to 30 hours of study in a science and the completion of periodic continuing education credits.) Field sanitarians must first complete a rigorous exam "testing their general knowledge in the basic and natural sciences and their application in the variety of environmental health activities." In-training salaries range from $10-13/hour (not much more than the going rate for trained restaurant staff).

Before becoming a registered sanitarian, candidates must first take the same class I did, then complete a rigorous one-year training program, coupled with inspection training. Registered sanitarians can make anywhere between $2,000 and $3,300 per month. There are 24 field sanitarians on staff at A/TCHD at the moment. They have to cover close to 3,800 potential food service inspection sites, and for the last year they averaged 1.77 regular inspections per site. Not bad given the large number of sites and the small number of inspectors.

Now that I had taken the same class as the sanitarians, I was cleared to accompany them on inspections. I met Eda Gowdy, staff sanitarian for A/TCHD, at a well-known barbecue restaurant. We walked in, found the manager, and introduced ourselves. Gowdy carefully explained that we were there to perform an unscored educational inspection, to bring him (and in turn his staff) up-to-date on the new code. A bit of the terror in his eyes dissipated when he heard the "unscored" part. But the inspection immediately got off on the wrong foot. The first thing Gowdy asked to see was his food manager's certificate. It had expired and not been renewed. He would have to go back through the class I had just taken. Next, Gowdy checked the temperatures of the refrigeration, only to find that the double-door reach-in freezer was at about 45º F, and the product within was hardly frozen (the new code specifies that frozen product must be "hard to the touch," and stored at a minimum of 0ºF). It was every restaurant manager's nightmare, a freezer full of product that had to be quickly consumed. Luckily for the manager, the restaurant's volume would allow them to go through all of the product within the four days Gowdy gave him to make sure that it was all used up.

Immediately, a call was made to the refrigeration repair company to have the compressor replaced. The new temperature requirements require that any new equipment must be able to hold product at a maximum of 41ºF, but old equipment is grandfathered at 45ºF until the year 2003. Change out a compressor, and the grandfather is gone. The refrigeration repair industry in Austin should do quite well in the coming years. Gowdy then began checking containers for throwaway dates. "Stored containers of prepped food," she explained, " must now be clearly marked with a throwaway date under the new code, unless it will be consumed within 24 hours. In the old days, you would mark the date that the food was prepped." The new code uses the throwaway standard so workers immediately know at a glance when product is outdated. It also makes it much easier to rotate product, and use the older stuff first. If kept at the new standard of 41ºF, product can be held for seven days; at 45º, the limit is four days.

Gowdy spotted a heat lamp warmer and asked, "What do you keep under this lamp? What sort of products, and for how long?" A heat lamp can rarely hold food at the required temperature of 140ºF. It's usually closer to 110º or so, clearly in the temperature danger zone. It's amazing how often food products like breakfast tacos or nachos sit under them to stay "hot" for long periods of time, especially in icehouses and drive-ins. "Uh, just French fries right out of the fryer ... they go right out." the manager replied.

She asked to see his HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) Plan, which he admitted didn't exist. HACCP was developed by NASA to protect astronauts from the possibility of gastro problems in space. Under the new code, an HACCP Plan is required and it "allows the chef or manager to classify potentially hazardous foods, monitor time and temperature and the preparation process, and reduce, prevent, or eliminate hazards before they happen." For a restaurant with a static menu, an HACCP Plan would be simple to develop. But for restaurants with menus that change all the time, it could require daily attention. The restaurant's refrigerator temps on the line were excellent, although none of the coolers had thermometers as required.

When Gowdy checked the temperature of the chopped beef, it was at 85ºF -- a major snafu. Here, the new procedure really showed its merits. "Explain to me exactly how you made the chopped beef this morning," Gowdy said to the worker. He replied, "Well, I took the cold beef brisket, chopped it, and added barbecue sauce." Gowdy countered with, "Did you use cold sauce or the fresh, hot batch?" It quickly came to light that the worker had added hot, freshly made barbecue sauce to the cold beef, thus bumping the whole batch into the dreaded danger zone. Had he added cold sauce, there would have been no threat. Now the beef had to be transferred to numerous smaller containers and placed in an ice bath to chill rapidly. In the process of inspecting the walk-in cooler and again checking temps with her trusty pocket thermometer (an indispensable tool for both the inspector and the chef), Gowdy found recently cooked briskets fresh from the pit, piled deeply on top of each other and covered with foil. The new code gives you only two hours to cool a hot product from 140ºF to 70ºF, then four hours to get it from 70ºF to 41ºF. Dense food products must be cooled in shallow layers, with lots of air space between them, in order to cool fast enough. And covering with foil can't be done until after they've cooled; otherwise heat is trapped, compounding the problem.

Perhaps the most costly problem (money-wise) for this restaurant was the lack of a mop sink, and no good place to install one. Under the old code, it was possible to combine pot washing and mop sinks. In a city with square-foot costs as high as they are here, doubling up for a mop sink was a common practice. Restaurants without both must now try to locate an unused site with adjacent plumbing. No doubt all across town, plumbers are busy installing mop sinks in old restaurants.

By the time Gowdy finished with the inspection, the manager was a sweaty, nervous wreck. It was a rainy day, and she deliberately chose a table near the wet spot on the dining room floor to illustrate a point. The leaking roof was now a page two item, not the critical item it had been under the old form. When all was said and done, and she explained the relatively minor infractions written on the form, the manager had mellowed somewhat. His place had no critical violations other than the mop sink, and he was given ample time to correct it. And other than a few alterations in procedure, and his signing up for the class, things were just fine. These days, the role of the health inspector is as much educator as regulator.

Gowdy loosened up and got a little chatty when the paperwork was finished. I asked her whether her friends pressure her to tell them where they should not eat. "My friends all know what I do for a living" she said. "They're always asking me where they shouldn't eat. But I never tell them what I consider to be privileged information. It would violate the code of ethics. So sometimes if they want to go someplace that I know I shouldn't go, I've gotta go anyway. If I've got a craving for a plate full of raw oysters, I'll go eat'em. I don't worry about it too much."

My next foray was with senior sanitarian Mark Hall. We headed out to inspect a small burger/video rental joint. On the way over, I quizzed him about a few aspects of his job. I wondered how often inspectors get verbal abuse or threats from the places that they inspect. "In 15 years on the job, I've been threatened six times and never physically assaulted. And I have been offered bribes of food and money," he said. (As if he would accept a bribe in the first place, much less one of food from a flunking restaurant.) "It's a relatively simple matter for me to get on the cellular and get the police and the department's legal coordinator involved if there are any problems," Hall noted. I asked how often the department was aware of disgruntled employees or competitors calling in complaints on restaurants. He said that "sometimes employees, or ex-employees, will try to pull a fast one," but that he didn't know of any competitors trying it. I had, however, heard stories from a catering source, about other caterers in town calling in suspected violations by their competitors.

"Most folks don't understand the full nature of our job," Hall told me. "It's not just inspecting eating establishments, but a lot of other things as well. We get pulled off food inspections to check out environmental complaints like overgrown lots or yards with too much junk and debris. We get calls from pesky neighbors about lids not being on trash cans and have to check out public-use swimming pools. All the bars have to be inspected because liquor is considered a food. Did you know that? Day care centers, hospitals, and businesses with cafeterias get looked at, and any drive-ins with soda dispensers or hot dog warmers. Vending machines, too. The absolute worst is a supermarket, because every single type of food service is represented, and there's a whole lot of it. It's not all glamour."

Hall has definitely seen some of the seamier sites in town in his 15 years. Some other states' health departments have the power not only to shut places down, but to levy fines as well. The A/TCHD handles those situations by filing charges in court, after which the legal coordinator and the municipal prosecutors take over. The health department can -- and has -- shut down establishments immediately when it discovers an imminent health hazard. As soon as the problem is corrected, and the food establishment passes a follow-up inspection, it's generally allowed to reopen. "We're not in the business to shut places down," says Hall, "but simply to guarantee the public a safe and wholesome food supply. I'd prefer that all the restaurants in my sector got perfect scores. It would make my job much easier and more positive ... and the public much safer."

I wondered aloud what happens when someone calls in with a complaint about getting sick. "You know, it's often real hard, if not totally impossible, to pin a cause down unless we get multiple calls on a single source," he replied. "If the complainees all ate the same thing, near the same time, at the same place, it can be pretty quick to wrap up. Then we can go to the site and examine the procedure in detail, (usually) isolate the source, and correct the process that caused the outbreak." Then he added, " But that doesn't happen very often." What complicates everything is that one never knows what people ate at home, and there is also a lot of commonality in symptoms and variation in incubation time. Plus, there are the legitimate stomach flus and viruses that make the rounds. It's a rare situation when someone has actually kept a portion of the suspect food item. Oftentimes when people are convinced a place got them sick, it's simply not the case.

Hall related a story: "Some folks had called to report a certain restaurant. The people had gotten sick as dogs and demanded we shut the place down. Turns out they had gotten food orders to go, then had gone shopping for hours and hours with the food sitting in their warm car before they finally got home to eat the food. It's situations like this that make restaurants look bad and waste the time of the health department." In many ways, the health department ends up protecting the reputations of the restaurants it inspects.

I was curious if any particular type of ethnic food was more of a problem for them than any other. Hall responded, "Other than the obvious problems of dealing with some of the more esoteric language differences, all restaurants are about the same. As a general rule, the bigger the menu, the more likely they are to find a problem, but only because you have more product and process involved. Cafeterias are especially hard to inspect due to the big numbers of menu items involved, the quantities they're prepared in, the fact that food is cooked and held (as opposed to cooking per order), and the large staff required to do it." A simplistic view, but one that makes sense.

We walked into the burger/video joint, which had about six booths for seating and just enough business coming in to keep the cook from getting a break or a breather. The customers were mostly truckers and denizens of a nearby trailer court. The kitchen was about six feet wide and 20 feet long -- about enough room to turn around. Hall introduced himself and explained the concept of the educational inspection. He washed his hands, whipped out his thermometer, and his roving eyes went to work.

He started with the refrigeration, of course. Everything was fine. He checked, and later re-checked, the gravies being reheated, to make sure they had reached a minimum of 165ºF for a period of at least 15 seconds. The cook did have condiments sitting out on the counter, but they hadn't been there for long, and the temps were in the safe zone. The cook also had his laundry stored next to his trash can -- again, a minor problem easily solved. The cafe was on city water but had a septic system, so Mark walked the septic field and recommended mowing for better transpiration. There was a problem with the drain of the cafe's ice machine: It was open, with no air gap to prevent backflow and no screen to prevent critters from entering. Hall would be back within 10 days to make sure it was taken care of. All in all, it was a pretty clean place. A small menu and small place made for fewer problems and tighter control.

As we left, Hall asked me what my schedule was like. It was flexible, so he said, "Let's go have some fun." Fun meant heading out to Harris Branch, where all the new home construction was going on, looking for fly-by-night, unregistered mobile food vendors. He was looking for a particular woman that he had busted several times (once involving a high-speed chase) for selling tacos made in her uninspected home kitchen. He had several reports that she was still at it, cruising the job sites and selling tacos out of the back of her small pickup with no permit and no holding ovens.

All taco wagons that cruise construction sites must have a city permit. There are two types: restricted and unrestricted. Unrestricted vendors can cook on the truck, but they must have potable water, a holding tank, and active refrigeration. Restricted vendors can sell packaged food only and must have holding ovens (usually propane) that keep the product at 140ºF or more. Both types should have a permit sticker in the lower right hand corner of the windshield. Hall was absolutely crestfallen when he didn't find her; he really wanted to put her out of her illegal and unsanitary business.

If you've started to question the wisdom of dining out, rest easy. Statistically, food prepared in the home kitchen is far more dangerous than that prepared in a commercial kitchen. I queried Keith Wildes, my instructor in the class, about the potential for problems in the typical home kitchen. "The home kitchen is a sanitarian's nightmare," he chuckled. "It's full of untrained people, and there's constant traffic in and out. There are pets lying around. Sanitary hand-washing is non-existent, especially in homes with toddlers. People wash their dishes with lukewarm water and weak detergents, and use towels instead of air-drying their dishes. There's no thermometer in the fridge, and it's crammed so full that air can't circulate." Wildes took a breath and continued: "Leftovers usually need carbon dating to determine their age. Home kitchens have food from unapproved sources, especially home-canned things. Folks thaw frozen food at room temps and leave leftovers sitting out for way too long. They use wooden cutting boards instead of acrylic. It's just a mess." The public does have a right to be paranoid, but it is their own kitchens they should fear.

More than ever before, the A/TCHD and the area restaurants are working together to guarantee the public's dining safety. They are at war, not with each other, but with the microbes that can cause such distress and the ignorance that perpetuates the problem. Now they are both armed with a new smart and sensible weapon: a stronger, saner, and safer food code that places emphasis on the root causes of foodborne illness and not on minor structural faults in the buildings from which the food is sold. The new code makes it easier for restaurants to concentrate on the food safety process, and by doing so, should actually help with the bottom line by eliminating product loss. The real winners in this struggle against foodborne illness will be the area's dining public. They will enjoy safer and more wholesome food. Knowledge of the process that produces foodborne illness is the key to prevention, both in the restaurant and the home kitchen. Let's hope that soon the real losers in this battle will be the diagnosticians and the microbiology labs.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Foodborne Illnesses, Food Safety

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