Inspections, placards help safeguard public health
When walking through the doors of a restaurant, patrons expect their hosts to provide a clean, attractive environment and food that is safe to eat. While that may seem obvious, it wouldn’t necessarily be the case without some kind of oversight.
Among the many responsibilities of local government is to aid in safeguarding the public’s health. In The Colony, Health Inspector Mary Branch enforces the Minimum State standards and the city’s food safety ordinances by conducting periodic inspections at the city’s restaurants, school cafeterias, and daycare facilities that offer food services.
Branch has 15 years of experience in health inspections, the last nine in The Colony. She started her career in Memphis. Cities each have their own ordinances but the majority of the rules and regulations she enforces are universal in terms of food temperatures and standard hygiene, Branch said.
“I’m out and about in the community doing inspections every day,” Branch said. “It’s my job to help protect the health of residents and visitors to our community. With all the new development taking place, we’ve had an influx of visitors and many are dining with us. We want to make sure our patrons from The Colony and our visitors are eating wholesome, safe food.”
Every restaurant receives three annual inspections. All are unannounced unless it’s a brand new establishment or there’s been a change of ownership. With new owners, Branch schedules meetings so she can introduce herself and go over the city’s health inspection process as well as advise them about the pitfalls associated with potential upgrades or remodeling.
Branch makes an effort to vary the inspection times for a given restaurant so she can get a sense of its practices during morning food preparation, the lunch rush, and dinner. “I try to shuffle around the inspections so I can get different perspectives on how they handle their business. I have a way to remember the cycle for each restaurant. It’s also important to remember some don’t have routine hours.”
Branch, however, does have a very thoughtful and deliberate routine she follows when conducting an inspection. The first step is looking to make sure the previous inspection score placard is prominently displayed as required.
“I kind of have a rhythm,” Branch said, noting that she’s become familiar with the layouts of the establishments she inspects. “I start with washing my hands then I work my way around the kitchen area.”
As she notices violations, she’ll stop and write them down, as well as point them out to the owner or manager of the restaurant. “Whatever the violation may be, we prefer it to be corrected while I’m here if at all possible,” she said.
Some violations may seem minor compared to others, but the checklist provides a comprehensive overview of all food-handling and hygiene practices and observed records relating to food safety. Each violation counts against the final score and, ultimately, the letter grade on the placard.
Food canisters, for example, need to be on a shelf, not on the floor. Shelving, in turn, gets sticky from built-up food debris and the cooking atmosphere in the kitchen, and must be cleaned.
Branch inspects all the food-contact surfaces to make sure they are also clean. She checks out the cooking utensils to make sure they are in good repair and that the right utensils are being used by the food handlers, who must also be using gloves if they’re directly handling food.
On a recent inspection, the lid to a plastic storage bin was cracked, costing points. “That could pose a threat because fragments of that bin could get into the food,” she said.
The most important, and precise, part of the inspection process involves food temperatures. “You’ll notice on the inspection form, temperature is at the top,” Branch said. “It’s one of the crucial components of the inspection. If not in compliance, someone could get ill.”
Potentially hazardous foods that are kept cold must be 41 degrees or below. For potentially hazardous hot foods, such as those prepared then kept in a steam unit (or hot-holding table), temperatures should be 135 degrees or higher. Depending on the type of food, minimum safe cooking temperatures range from 145 to 165 degrees. Cooks may choose to cook food to higher temperatures of about 200 degrees
Stored, precooked food must be kept at a minimum temperature as well. If a tested cold item is within 10 degrees, it can be moved to a colder storage unit instead of being tossed out. Even if a food item has been recently removed from storage then put back, it’ll still result in lost points if it’s out of the correct temperature range.
Another major component of the hygiene score is having hand-washing stations in each area of the kitchen, including the dishwashing area. And, if a station lacks soap, sanitizer, or paper towels, that’s more points lost.
Branch inspects shipments of food products to make sure the food is properly packaged, not compromised by pests or temperature, and that it’s a product from an approved source.
In the dishwashing area, she tests the PH levels water to ensure the proper amount of sanitizer is present in the cleaning solutions. Dishwashing areas have three compartments, where cookware and dishes are washed with detergent, rinsed, sanitized and then air-dried.
Pests, such as roaches, gnats, fruit flies, rats, and mice, can be a problem anywhere but particularly in the dishwashing area. “If the restaurant has a good system and follows the rules, we won’t find any pests,” Branch said.
One of her last stops in the routine is to check the restrooms. They should be sanitary, and have soap, paper towels or a hand blower, trash receptacles, working plumbing, hot and cold running water, hand-washing signage for employees, and a self-closing door.
At the end, Branch sits down with the restaurant’s management and explains the results of the inspection. “The documentation serves as a cheat-sheet,” she said. “They know what to look for and how to follow it to ensure they’re in compliance.”
At this time, she also requests proof of monthly pest-control treatments; proof of proper grease-trap disposal; and proof that a registered food manager is on site at all times. She also requests food handler cards for all employees working in the kitchen.
“These documents should always be on the premises, in a binder system or folder. If not, those are technicalities that will cost more points. It’s an important part of the process,” Branch said.
By its nature, food preparation is a messy business. It’s difficult for a restaurant to receive a perfect score. “Some of it is expected, it’s the nature of the business,” Branch said. “But we like to see that they can improve, and that whatever violations we find, they’re willing to come in compliance as soon as possible.” Failure to comply within the specified time frame may result in citations or closure of the establishment.
In one recent inspection, the restaurant’s grade went from an A to a B, with a score of 86. Noteworthy violations included dirty shelving, lack of required documentation, one food item out of temperature, and an inoperable soap dispenser in the dishwashing area. No pests, no extreme temperature or food-handling violations – and still a B.
Branch said some restaurant owners complain about being required to post the scorecards in the establishment because they feel it has a direct impact on their business.
“Because they have to display them, they feel like, ‘If I have a B or a C, I’m not going to get customers,’ ” Branch said. “But the way I see it, if you’re following the regulations and guidelines, and have great food and service, customers will come. I think it’s more advantageous to advertise that you’re serving safe, wholesome food, and practicing safe hygiene.”
Use of the health inspection placards has the support of the City Council. During discussion at a regular meeting in August, Mayor Joe McCourry said the system promotes transparency and encourages restaurants to get the highest score possible.
“The City of The Colony is a leader in the Metroplex,” he said, adding that the inspector works from a known checklist designed to protect customers. “They should be proud they’ve got those letters up there.”
Branch added that food safety and education are paramount components of the program, and stressed her focus is on reducing the occurrences of foodborne practices within the community.
“I advise consumers to review the entire inspection history of an establishment, not just the individual inspection score. That will provide a more accurate picture of an establishment’s commitment to food safety and sanitation,” she said.
With the ever-increasing number of restaurants in the city, the 2015-16 fiscal year budget includes adding a new position to help with health inspections. Not only can two cover more ground than one, but restaurants will have the benefit of more timely re-inspections when requested or to follow-up that violations have been corrected.
Most restaurants, however, are cooperative and understanding. “If you’re clean and want to serve safe food, you have nothing to hide,” Branch said.