IamA former health inspector of restaurants, grocery stores and gas stations in one of the biggest counties in the US. I've worked in food safety in various capacities for over a decade. AMA!
I have worked in food safety in many capacities for over a decade from processing plants, to restaurants, to school cafeterias, to grocery stores, to gas stations and anywhere else food is processed or sold. Every time I think I've seen it all, something new comes up and surprises me. I'm here to answer any questions you have about food safety or anything else food related!
I need to remain somewhat anonymous so that my current position isn't jeopardized, but here is some proof that I am certified in food safety.
EDIT: Wow! I didn't know you guys would be so interested! You've had some excellent questions and I've done my best to answer every one of them. Please keep them coming. I need to head off to bed now so I can get up early in the morning and play a small part in protecting the food YOU eat! I'll answer all I can in the morning! :)
EDIT #2: Wow front page?!? I'm blushing! I've only been on reddit for about 2 months. Glad I can contribute something you're interested in!!
Luckily I never had the pleasure of walking into anything criminal! I did hear the story of a co-worker finally getting into a place that was "never open" to do an inspection. When he entered the kitchen, there were some guys counting a very large sum of money on a prep table. He said he slowly backed out of there and the next government official to return was a cop!
What is the most horrid atrocity of a restaurant you have seen?
Most horrid? Probably entering a facility to perform its first inspection after a new owner took possession of the building. The last owner completely shut off power and everything and the restaurant sat empty (or so we thought) for about a month during the summer. I walked in with the new owners, who had just received the keys. The dining room looked to be clean and in order. As soon as we walked into the kitchen, it was an all out nightmare! Dishes caked with mold and remnants of food everywhere and drains filled with black slime! The worst was the walk-in cooler. When we opened the door, I almost hurled. The last owners must have closed shop on their last day and just walked away- leaving boxes and boxes of raw seafood (fish, oysters), raw meats and produce sitting on the shelves in the cooler. Nothing was recognizable except the oyster shells. Everything was COVERED in black and green mold. The veggies had turned to limp slime. It was the most disgusting thing I have encountered. I feel bad for the new folks having to clean that up.
I had to go back for a re-inspection before they opened about 2 weeks later. The place was spotless!
Going to be honest I was pleasantly surprised with this story. No gross food served, and a happy ending.
That's not to say "gross" food is never served...just not in this case! ;)
How does someone even begin to clean that sort of thing up? I figure they must have hired professionals, but what do the professionals do? Bleach? Fire? I can't imagine.
I have no idea but I'm sure it involved masks, shovels, a power washer and a lot of bleach!
Does a situation like this require a special cleaning process ? I figure you need some heavy duty stuff to clear this out.
There isn't a real written requirement that I know of. It just all has to be clean to sight and touch. I'm sure there were some heavy duty compounds and bleach used to get this one spotless!
How important are expiration and "best used by" dates on food? It always seems like there are anecdotes about restaurants and grocery stores throwing away perfectly good food just because it's after the date on the package.
Anything that is not potentially hazardous (doesn't require temperature to keep it safe) is generally only date marked for quality purposes. Potentially hazardous foods are date marked because once they expire, bacterial levels can begin to grow to harmful levels.
So, that box of crackers in your pantry from 2011? Probably safe to eat- maybe just stale. That package of deli meat from 2 weeks ago- get rid of it!
Great AMA! What's a typical procedure for inspecting a fast food restaurant such as McDonalds or BK?
I really look at all inspections the same, whether it says McDonalds on the front door or "Mom and Pop". There are many things to focus on, but I typically will allow the layout of the kitchen dictate where I go and when. So that I don't miss anything, I usually follow the walls around in a pattern, zig zaging between prep tables and so on. I do have a method to my madness and as I inspect each area, I look for three main things: sanitation (is it clean?), temperature (is it within safe limits?) and cross-contamination (is it stored safely?). Of course there are other things that we look at like labeling, etc. but that's how I approach food and equipment. While I am inspecting those items, I glance up often to observe employee behaviors. Are they handling the food properly, wearing gloves when required and washing hands when necessary? That's pretty much the gist of it while in the kitchen.
Of course there are many, many more things to look at, but that is the bulk.
I'm military and on field day I was prideful of the smell of detergents and bleach and slick walls and dustless horizontal services. Then I got to wear the inspector hat for my Marines. It got to the point i would go home for a long weekend and because the big house my parents had was dirtier than the immaculate small space I usually lived in I'd get sniffles in the morning. Thanks for keeping the standard!
Thank you for your service! My partner was in the Army and ran several commissaries. I know you guys know how to run a tight ship!
For the record- when I'm at my parents' house, I go through their fridge and toss all of the expired stuff. I guess once an inspector, always an inspector! :)
So I manage a deli inside a large upscale grocery store. I am one of those people that is frustrated by the upper management's lack of concern about proper cleaning and safety. I do not have enough people/hours to run a properly cleaned kitchen.
My current mission is to screw them with their own SOPs /health code rules. I know what you mean about the meat/cheese slicers not being cleaned properly. So now, no matter how few people are serving customers and no matter how many customers there are, every 4 hours those puppies are coming down (and we have 5 of them so it takes a while! ) The only thing the management cares that we do well is temp checks every 2hours I have read some of the MN health code (but need to read more) but are there any other standards, similar to that, that you can think of to help me get my point across? I did get them to (finally) admit that they are under staffing us, but since the business plan is already written, they aren't going to do anything about it until October. So basically my only hope is to make customer service suffer because I am using staff on projects needed to follow safe food practices
On behalf of the general public and your customers, thank you for not giving up and for keeping your food safety standards high! I work very closely with grocery stores and could probably (but I won't) pinpoint which one you are speaking of. Unfortunately the retail industry in the US is at a turning point right now as consumers are shopping differently than they ever have before. Retailers are changing their strategies and as a result, labor has been cut drastically at most grocery stores nationwide.
My best advice is to keep on keeping on. You're doing the right thing. If I was a customer at your store, I would much rather wait for the slicer to be clean than to eat from a dirty one. Likewise, I'd be happy to wait for 20 seconds while you wash your hands before waiting on me!
Reach out to the food safety team for your company- when they realize how hard you're trying, they can sometimes make miracles happen- maybe get you another head or two. Talk to your third party auditor (I'm guessing you have one) and ask them to help you clean more efficiently (work smarter not harder)! If there are blatant violations not being corrected, you could always file an anonymous complaint with the health department- just make sure you are doing it for the right reasons and not out of spite.
Good luck to you...keep us updated on how things progress.
Love the name. Thanks for the AMA!
Anyways. What is the craziest reaction you have gotten when a restaurant has failed an inspection? I know you can't name names, but what inspection has stood out to you the most?
Craziest reaction- anything from crying to begging to being cussed out. I have even had customers (at a bar, go figure) cuss me out and almost had to call the cops!
How common are the horrors we are shown on Kitchen Nightmares? How often do places actually get inspected?
I hate to say it, but nearly everything I have seen on Kitchen Nightmares (and I watch it faithfully), I have seen during my inspections. Maybe not all at one location, but I have seen it. Ramsay does a good job of over-dramatizing things, but nothing I have seen as far as his "inspections" is incorrect.
Frequency of inspection varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. I believe at a minimum, locations that serve high risk foods (foods cooked from raw, etc.) need an inspection twice per year. The county where I was inspected high-risk establishments once per quarter and lower risk ones (like gas stations) twice per year.
Is it awkward to eat at a restaurant you've inspected previously (especially if there were violations)? or do you avoid going out to eat?
Yes it is very awkward. I try not to do it, but when I do, the operators are usually very happy. Almost honored that I would eat there, because you know, I 'wouldn't eat there if it wasn't clean'! I've had operators announce to the entire place that I was their health inspector and I was eating there, so it must be clean. A little embarrassing!
What was the worst case of a staff trying to cover up something that would have impacted your scoring of the establishment? If there aren't any, what is the worst thing you've seen?
I was usually pretty good at uncovering issues. One instance that I can think of that might fit your question: I entered the restaurant just as the employees got there for the day, which was just before lunch. When we entered, the employees began the process of getting the restaurant ready for lunch and I began my inspection. When I got to the walk-in cooler I knew something was wrong. I pulled out my thermometer and sure enough all of the foods were reading room temperature (70ish when it needed to be below 41 degrees F). The walk-in cooler had failed and gone down sometime during the night. It was an asian restaurant and thus they had many, many pounds of fresh meat already prepped and ready for lunch that day. I had to tell the owner that it all had to be discarded.
Sadly, I had to watch as the entire team rolled in 55 gallon trash cans, filled them with the meat and wheeled them out to the dumpster. I finished my inspection, wrote the report (including embargo slip for his tax records) and left. As I was leaving, I happened to drive around to the back of the building. That's when I noticed the restaurant employees standing in and around the dumpster, retrieving all of the food I just made them discard.
Needless to say, the owner got an even bigger violation, a citation, and the food was returned to the dumpster and I got the displeasure of showering it with bleach to ensure it would NOT be used.
It was very sad but also infuriating!
Wow. Thats actually really interesting. Disgusting find but an interesting one. Thanks for your time.
Ugh, that could have just been an insurance claim!
I'm sure it was. It was A LOT of meat. That's why we issue the embargo ticket so he can work with insurance/taxes, etc.
If the food itself (rather than the air) was room-temp, then the refrigeration did not fail overnight. It would have failed 24-48 hours earlier.
Point taken! All I know is that it was very warm in there and the internal food temps were room temp!
they could have at least waited until you were gone.
They were in a hurry to open for lunch!
First off, I've gotta say, this is one of the most interesting AMA's I've ever read. The entire industry surrounding food, because it involves so many processes and so much trust, fascinates me. I find myself asking so many questions just walking up and down the aisles of a grocery store.
So my questions: What attracted you to this job? How did you go about getting it? Is it satisfying? Do you wish you were doing something else?
Aww...you're making me smile...thanks!!
To answer your question, I just kind of fell into the role, and it's kind of taken a life of its own! I started from college in a food processing plant. From there, I ended up at the USDA which led me to the health department. I'm currently working for a private company, but this food safety thing...it becomes a part of you! I really enjoy what I do! If you had told me in college that this is what I would have ended up doing, I would have laughed! But honestly, it's fun educating people! There is a shortage of food safety professionals too, so it's a great field to get into right now!
With the current Golden Corral scandal. Shouldn't the inspectors be checking the dumpster area anyway too?
I remember getting dinged because one of my dish dogs didn't close the dumpster lid.
Well, I'm not sure where to start this one. I just watched the video again in hopes of being able to provide you with a good response, but in all honesty, I don't know what was going on here. I have never worked directly with this company but I am fairly confident in stating that this is not their policy. There are a few things that I can speculate might have happened: 1. The guy who recorded this staged it, or 2. There is a bad "egg" working at that location that did this for who knows what reason. The food appears to have been covered and stored in clean multi-use containers so something was going right. It's just hard to say what really happened. I would not take this video as evidence that this chain is bad- just that some guy working there was trying to hide it for whatever reason.
As far as inspectors looking at the dumpsters. Yes, we are supposed to look at dumpsters for evidence of leakage, pests, overflowing, etc. Does that mean that every dumpster at every location is inspected? No. I don't know if the inspector looked at this one or not. If he/she did, they would have to have asked a lot of questions as to the disposition of the food. If not voluntarily destroyed, I'm sure it would have been embargoed.
What is the grossest thing you have ever encountered with a restaurant?
There was the nasty walk-in cooler I mentioned in another post.
One funny thing I saw though: I entered the restaurant and walked up to the host to explain my visit and ask for a manager. He stalled me for as long as he could. After about 5 minutes, a manager emerged from the kitchen, shook my hand and then turned to lead me back to the kitchen. As he turned, a roach ran across the back of his shirt from his shoulder diagonally down to his waistband. I didn't know if I should smack it off of him, or let it go. Luckily, as I started to swat at it, it fell on the floor and I squished it. He never even knew about that one!
I did, however, inform him of the hundreds of them I found in a crack in the kitchen wall!
When I watch shows like Restaurant Impossible, the kitchens are BEYOND vile and filthy sometimes. How are they not shut down?
Good question! Either they plan and fake it really well when the inspector comes or: - Lack of inspections (governments are tightening their belts and there aren't as many resources). - Lack of a competent inspector (it happens) - The show makes it look worse (could happen- anything for ratings!) - or - who knows! That's all I can think of!
Is it true that packaged food and drinks in supermarkets have a minnimum level of gross stuff that is acceptable like trace amounts of mice feces or hair, because it would be impossible that they have zero amounts of these ?
Well, let me start by saying that to my knowledge, there are no acceptable levels of any of this.
With that said, let's talk produce. People seem to have a fit when they find dirt or an insect in their lettuce after buying it from the grocery store. Let's think about this...these items are grown OUTSIDE and IN THE GROUND! Of course, it is reasonable to think that some amount of dirt, an insect or two or EVEN POO (ie: spinach outbreak) will inevitably show up on produce. This is why you need to wash it when you get it home.
When it comes to production plants, I guess anything is possible. Again, I don't think any level is "allowable" meaning, I highly doubt anything like that would knowingly pass through to packaging. From my own experience, I worked in a meat production facility and I can tell you that the USDA was all over the place. You couldn't fart without one of them hearing it and condemning the area (not literally, but you get the point).
I think gsloane is talking about The Food Defect Action Levels: Levels of natural or unavoidable defects in foods that present no health hazards for humans published by the FDA.
It describes the "maximum levels of natural or unavoidable defects in foods for human use that present no health hazard," which are set "because it is economically impractical to grow, harvest, or process raw products that are totally free of non-hazardous, naturally occurring, unavoidable defects."
Any level of defect beyond that set in the guideline would be considered adulterated. The expectation is that manufactures achieve actual defect levels that are much lower than described.
One example included within:
CONDIMENTAL SEEDS OTHER THAN FENNEL SEEDS AND SESAME SEEDS
Mammalian excreta (MPM-V32)
Average of 3 mg or more of mammalian excreta per pound
Makes sense! Kind of like the lettuce example I gave earlier. Some things are not avoidable.
Thanks for your AMA!
How often do you perform inspections on a restaurant?
Is it difficult for a restaurant to hide health violations?
Have you ever failed a restaurant for violations? And if you did, what happens if they fall? Also, what options do they have to rectify the situation?
Have restaurants every attempted to bribe you?
What's the best way to report health violations of you're a patron? How can my report be taken seriously?
Thanks for your time!
This is my first AMA...so far it's fun! Thanks for your questions!
How often do you perform inspections on a restaurant? As I mentioned in a previous comment, inspection frequency varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and can even vary in the type of facility.
Is it difficult for a restaurant to hide health violations? Some things are easier to hide than others. Behaviors are the hardest thing to break though, and if you really watch with a critical eye, you can really see the bad habits come out. Some things are just easy to spot, like walking into a facility and having the operator yell "GLOVES!" to the kitchen. It was a little obvious that they weren't wearing their gloves. Since I didn't see them without the gloves on, however, I couldn't write it. A little further into my inspection, I saw a cook make a sandwich with gloves on, go into the restroom and come back out with them still on and go make a sandwich. It was obvious that he didn't understand proper glove use. They received a violation, some training and the trash can got a sandwich!
Have you ever failed a restaurant for violations? And if you did, what happens if they fall? Also, what options do they have to rectify the situation? Yes, but again it depends on the jurisdiction. In my county, they went on probation for a period of time in which they could be inspected again at any time. If they failed during probation, they could be closed down and have to go to court in order to reopen. More times than not, we would sit down with the operator and help to train them on their issues so that they fully understood the problem and got it corrected. No inspector ever wants to shut a restaurant down and take away the livelihood of its workers.
Have restaurants every attempted to bribe you? People have joked, but no, I've never been all-out bribed.
What's the best way to report health violations of you're a patron? How can my report be taken seriously? The best way is to call your health department and file a formal complaint (some allow you to do it online). It sounds like you are the bad guy, but really you are helping. The only way outbreaks can be discovered and contained is when multiple people report the same issue. Health inspectors are only present for a small snapshot of time- if you file a complaint, they will follow up and at the very least, you can help keep the facility on its toes!
We (a business group with catered food) found live, wriggling maggots in our cream for coffee at a hotel restaurant. It was truly sickening, so we were surprised when the hotel manager first acted like it was no big deal, and then became threatening. (We were stuck at the hotel on a business trip). Guess I could have reported it anonymously then? Thanks!
That's just nasty. I would have reported it so they could determine the source of the problem: manufacturer, transport, or hotel.
what's the protocol for cleaning the nozzles on the frozen yogurt machines I see at local "fill your dish with as much fro-yo as you want and pay for the weight" places? I would hope nightly cleanings are in order, but how much of that machine has to get taken apart?
I'm sure every manufacturer has its own method of cleaning, and I don't know the standard operating procedures for every piece of equipment. If the yogurt is kept at proper temperature continuously in the machine, there is really no set cleaning frequency for cleaning the entire machine. Usually, these places will break down the entire thing once per week. With that said, the parts like the nozzles that are more in contact with room temperature and the general public usually get cleaned once per night. Cleaning procedures vary, but at a minimum, parts must be washed with detergent, rinsed with clear water, and sanitized using either a chemical sanitizer or heat (dishmachine).
Are the conditions and cleanliness (or lack thereof) of the restaurant's restrooms accurately describing how clean the restaurant keeps their kitchen? Do the two go hand-in-hand?
You know, I have kind of mixed thoughts about that. I've seen the studies conducted and overall, the general public views the cleanliness of the restaurant in direct correlation with the cleanliness of the kitchen. I just have a hard time with this in reality.
There are so many factors here...did someone just trash the restroom before you walked in? Is the same person (ie: Kitchen Manager) responsible for the kitchen as the restroom (not always) and are their cleaning procedures and philosophies the same? Honestly on this one, it can be really hard to tell. Sorry I don't have a better answer for you!
Is it legal for a restaurant to operate with massive amounts of black mold? I work in a restaurant where we have it behind the bar, inside our soda machines, under server stations and under our tablecloths.
I'm not sure how to really answer your question about it being legal. In short response, no food establishment should produce foods in unsanitary conditions. Every jurisdiction and inspector can define "sanitary" differently, which is why there is such a variation in what is allowed to occur out there.
When I inspected bars, I would often have people subtly point out issues because they were frustrated at the lack of cooperation from their managers. Maybe the next time you're inspected (if your inspector forgets his/her flashlight), you could mention it or casually point it out. I'll bet it would get addressed after that! You could always call in an anonymous tip to your health department too. At least they will send someone out to investigate.
I find it disgusting. My boss cuts sooo many corners because it keeps his bonus high. This is a corporate popular chain too. I'm so embarrased sometimes.
That's the biggest problem with having health inspection scores tied into their bonus. While the purpose is to encourage operators to do well, many times it does end up in finding ways to "cheat" in order to make a buck. What you manager doesn't realize is that if he put the same effort he puts into covering it up, into maintaining it clean, he would be ahead of the game and still get his bonus. When someone gets sick from his "cut corners", he will be out of a job. Is it really worth it?
I would report him. I'm sure your company has an anonymous hotline.
I've wanted to for years. Thanks for the justification.
Good for you! You may very well be saving someone from getting very sick! I'll be thinking about you. Let us know how it goes!
So those sheets of glass covering things like the salad bar and ice cream bar are sneeze covers. This isn't a question I just remembered it as I learned it recently and find it kinda neat.
Neat until little kids walk up...
Sorry to rain on your parade ;)
Little kids don't walk up to salad bars ;) but my ice cream is ruined now thanks :(
Sorry. Those machines can get pretty nasty, so it's probably better to stay away from them anyway ;)
I've enjoyed every one of your comments... until this one. You just stabbed soft serve in the dick.
Sorry to burst your bubble! Thanks for the laugh...I needed that!!!
I and many of my food service worker friends often joke about how health inspections are about which restaurant can lie the best. For instance, I never wear gloves at work, and have rarely seen others doing the same within the many restaurants I've worked. Chefs hate gloves. Can you tell when its all a facade, and that people only care when they know the health inspector is coming in?
Oh yeah, we know. Honestly, I would hate them too, but it's not my job to decide if they are right or wrong, just to enforce the code. It's hard to break bad habits though...so no matter how hard a place tries, eventually the old habits emerge!
You've mentioned gloves in a few of your answers, and in my many years cooking in restaurants I've rarely if ever seen anyone wearing gloves. There's a lot of food handling and preparation that is nearly impossible to do with gloves on. Asking a cook to wear gloves is like asking a guitar player to wear gloves.
My question is this: Are there any food safety rules you personally feel are unnecessary, or maybe a little over the top?
Yes, and this is one of them! I see all sides to this issue. Truth is that if everyone would wash their hands when they are supposed to, the glove rule would never have ever been added to the code. I see more violations BECAUSE of the gloves than anything else because people don't understand when they are supposed to be worn. I see them sweeping the floors with gloves on, taking out the trash with them on, cleaning too, etc. Gloves are supposed to protect the food from hands, NOT hands from foods and other soils! :)
Based on your experience, what are the cleanest chain restaurants/fast food joints? What are the filthiest?
While I'm not going to name specifics (because I still work with them), I can say that most of the larger chains are typically pretty clean. They have the money to have several food safety managers who conduct their own internal audits- which are often much more stringent than the what a health inspector would do. I say this knowing that there are always exceptions to the rule.
In all honesty, as far as the filthiest- they are usually the smaller mom and pop kind of restaurants, or those with only a few other stores. I think it all comes down to money for training and cleaning products. Many smaller chains and mom and pops, just don't have the resources or knowledge of how/when to properly clean. Again, there are exceptions to this, but in my experience, this is what I have observed.
General rule- I tell my friends and family that if you enter a restaurant and get a gut feeling that something isn't right, it usually isn't. Look around- is there an inch of dust on the decorations in the dining room? Indicates a lack of attention to detail. There are several indicators of filth- insects such as roaches and flies being some.
Redneck lezbo...you seem like a very nice human being. I wish you luck on all of your future endeavors. Cheers!
Why thank you! I've really enjoyed doing this! I'm kind of a food safety geek if you can't tell! :)
As a professional cook I think this AMA is pretty awesome. All my previous health inspections have gone decently well. Are there any things to watch out for that will cost me points? Anything out of the ordinary that most of us won't think of? Thanks.
If you've done well, then you're already ahead of the curve. I'd just say watch your personal habits and the habits of those around you. I heard somewhere that we touch our faces 2,000 times per day. We don't wash our hands that much! As inspectors get more in-tuned with observing personal hygiene habits, I'd say just be more conscious of what you're doing!
Keep up the great work! :)
My biggest fear while dining out is to be served somebody else's untouched food, or leftovers. Is it something that restaurants do, or am I just being paranoid? If they don't re-serve those expensive, takes-time-to-cook untouched orders, how do they dispose of them?
Your question is really two parts and both parts have varying answers depending on the establishment's policies. I'll do the best I can here, but you may want to ask someone who actually works everyday in a restaurant and understands their restaurant's policies.
Leftovers- Often times when food is prepared but not completely used, a restaurant will carry it over to the next day, or use it for another purpose. An example is a grocery store's rotisserie chicken. Many times if the chicken is not sold within proper time limits, it is cooled and then used the next day to make chicken salad or something similar. As long as the "leftover" is properly handled (temperatures, no cross-contamination, etc.), this is perfectly fine. Often times there are more issues with quality than with safety.
Other people's untouched food- If a food is returned to the kitchen, it can be reheated or discarded. It CANNOT be served to someone else. The same thing goes for tortilla chips and bread. Once it sits in front of one customer, it needs to be discarded if not eaten. I'm sure there are stories that can be told of this not happening, but I have not ever witnessed it being re-served to someone else with the exception of peanuts or something similar at a bar- which is NOT supposed to happen but does all the time (ick- I never eat out of the "community" bowl!).
What's the worst inspection you have had to partake? Also, has there ever been any rude restaurant owner that went crazy on you?
Worst inspection was the walk-in cooler incident I mentioned in a previous response.
Bezerk owners were common. Usually they were more freaked out, but I did have a couple of chefs go off on me. Usually because they knew everything- even when they didn't.
I know it's way past when this AMA started but I hope you answer my question! This summer I've been waiting tables at different restaurants for the first time, and I feel like I've discovered a difference between "clean" and "sanitary." Aren't these things synonymous? Or at least they're supposed to be?
Clean means free of visible soils. Sanitized means 99.999% of all bacteria have been removed. So, during the wash, rinse, sanitize process- something is "clean" after the wash step, but not "sanitized" until it has been exposed to sanitizer (chemical or heat) and then air dried.
Does that help?
I was wondering what you thought of house fermented foods. i have heard of peoples plans to dump them from their kitchen when ever the inspector comes by and they also regularly test them to make sure no one gets sick. where i live you need to have a haacp plan to do it and if you dont you get points. Haacp plans are expensive. What do you think about that and other dishes that get served like house cured meats when you go into an inspection. I realize this is biased based on the region that you are in.
I'm trying to think (hurts a little ;) and I don't think I've ever actually seen house fermented foods. I wouldn't be surprised that it happens where people dump them before an inspection. When people want to hide what's going on, they usually do. I've seen people scramble to hide foods in the trunk of cars, and I even witnessed the illegal butchering of a goat which they had tried to hide by throwing the carcass on the roof (dripping blood from the eave gave it away)!
HAACP plans don't have to be expensive. There are so many resources online now. I understand every jurisdiction is different, but yours should be able to help you write one.
I honestly don't have a lot of experience with house cured meats either...wish I could help, but you've found an area that is still left for me to explore!
Thanks for responding so quickly! I was looking into it but my boss was not happy that I even asked. We have a rat problem so I not willing to do anything that can get me in trouble. So if the rats give us points I won't risk being the one to blame doing a project and then getting the stuff put on me.
I'll give you the same advice I gave someone else tonight. If you work for a chain restaurant, I'm sure you have an anonymous hotline. If not, you could always file an anonymous complaint with your health department. You never know when it will be your grandma or your kid with a compromised immune system who will sit in the dining room next, and have the potential of getting really sick from an unsafe practice. I encourage you to report it- you could save someone from getting really sick! Good luck and let us know if you do and how it goes!
Multi part question here. What do the people who you inspect think of you? Do they fear you or hate you? Do you let minor things slide? Can they negotiate their way out of a fail to a close pass?
Well it helped that the inspector who had my area before me was a total dick, so they were happy to get ANYBODY else! It took a year or so, but people learned to trust me. They respected that I had a job to do and I respected them when they were honestly trying. When it came to letting things "slide'- well, there are a lot of grey areas. When an issue had a high probability of making someone sick- it was a violation- no doubt about it. There were some more minor things that I would just ask them to fix while I was there and may or may not write.
I tried to be the kind of inspector who actually explained 'why' things were wrong and helped them to correct it. I think inspectors that simply go around with a clipboard, make a bunch of notes, then leave aren't doing anyone any good. The only way we can all get better is to learn why a mistake is a mistake and how to fix it so that we don't make it again.
Wow, I would love to have you inspect the restaurant I work at. The other day we a surprise inspection when it was really busy. We didn't have time to make everything was clean and in place then he failed us. I feel like some inspectors pick on restaurants inside gas stations (dunkin donuts). Is that true?
I suppose it's possible. We had such a full load of places to inspect per day, that I never had time to sit down and decide to pick on one or another. I treated each facility as equally as I could. We were instructed to rotate days/times we inspected a facility so that we could see different processes and employees throughout the day. So, since you were visited during lunch this time, hopefully you won't the next!
Inspectors don't expect everything to be clean when they walk in. After all, you are operating a business and things get soiled throughout the day. Inspectors should be focusing on obvious neglect while cleaning- the stuff that's black and crusty- not at the green crisp piece of lettuce that fell on the floor during today's production. Sometimes inspectors need to be (respectfully) reminded of that! :)
"The Zone" as you know defines a certain temperature range in a certain amount of time. But let's say I have a 9 pound pork butt that I smoke for 8-10 hours: it's going to be well wayward of the guidelines in its interior for much of the cooking. How does whatever agency you work for reconcile this?
The guidelines actually have an exception for smoked and roasted meats with increased lengths of time at lower temperatures. Bacterial growth depends on both temperature AND time. Slow and steady cooking of such foods is proven to kill the harmful bacteria just as well as cooking to a higher temp for 15 seconds.
How do you feel about sous vide methods stretching that limit?
I honestly don't have enough experience with it to really form an opinion or give you an educated response. Sorry!
Thanks for doing this AMA. I apologize for my overly verbose and specific questions.
What are the ethical guidelines surrounding eating in establishments that you're responsible for inspecting? I've eaten out with health inspectors, and when they are recognized as such at nice restaurants it almost seems like their party is treated better than a food critic.
To what extent do you bother specifically identifying pests like flies? I faintly recall something about the difference between drain flies and sewer flies, and if you know the difference as an inspector you can tell whether it's a sanitation issue, or an actual structural plumbing issue. Ring any bells or am I crazy?
Ethical guidelines- you just have to be real careful because they always want to buy your dinner. In my county we were told that if they insisted, we should find out what the bill would have been and tip that amount. You're right about being treated better than a food critic! Luckily, my area was about 20 miles from my home, so I didn't eat in that area often.
Pest identification- I was always taught to look for the source- which more often than not is a result of a sanitation issue. You can tell the difference between a drain fly and a house fly, and knowing some basic entomology, you can usually trace what they're feeding on. It was never a requirement to list which species of fly you found and I rarely went further than listing "drain fly" or "house fly", etc. Hope this answers your question.
What percentage of business owners try to bribe you?
Never had a real bribe. Had some joking about "slipping me a couple of bucks" but it never happened. Thank God! I wouldn't have wanted all of the paperwork of reporting someone who did that!
My job was never worth the bribe!
Is buying fresh food from a grocery store really that much better than buying cooked food from a chain store? If so, by how much?
I'm not exactly sure I understand your question. You mean in terms of food safety? If so, I would say at least when you buy from the grocery store, you are able to pick out any bad spots and wash your produce properly before you eat it. You never know what happens at a restaurant. Was it cleaned properly? Was it cooked properly? You just have to have faith that it was.
I mean, I've heard a lot of people saying that whatever fell on the floor or is a week old is put out as the "manager's special" or whatever. Usually deli items. I've also heard some weird things that I choose not to believe about the meat in the meat section.
I mean, what are the odds you're going to get something funky? The same whether you dine in or eat out or is there a disparity one way or the other?
Honestly, you get people who have a good knowledge of food safety and you get those who don't no matter if you're at a grocery store or at a restaurant. I remember when I first started as a health inspector saying to myself "I'm never going out to eat again!". Then we inspected a few grocery stores and said "I'm never buying groceries again!". I've learned that I hadn't been killed before I had a knowledge of food safety and I likely won't die now that I do know more. I just know to look out for and avoid various foods.
For example, I never buy sliced meats and cheeses from the grocery store because the chances you can contract an illness are higher than from some other foods. The slicers are a pain in the ass to clean properly and they are supposed to be cleaned every 4 hours of use. I very rarely see them cleaned at the frequency and using the proper method as they are supposed to.
Things in the "manager's special bin" are usually things that are close to their expiration date. If you buy it, eat it. Don't let it sit in your fridge for more than a day or so, or your chances of getting sick from it increase. Same goes for discounted meat. Eat it or freeze it.
The odds that you're going to get something "funky" from a grocery store are about the same as the odds getting it from a restaurant. Use your senses- they will tell you a lot more than you would think. How does it LOOK? How does it SMELL? How does it feel? If it's slimy, get rid of it!
tl;dr Take a chance if you're hungry, but don't forget your common sense. Gotcha.
The odds that you're going to get something "funky" from a grocery store are about the same as the odds getting it from a restaurant.
That's good to know. So far I'm pretty low in both camps. So its business as usual for me.
Common sense is a big part of it!
What common dishes served at restaurants are most likely to be contaminated?
Honestly, I can't really pinpoint specific items. I'd say that you're at a higher risk if you eat foods that are raw or undercooked (steaks cooked rare, runny eggs, etc.). Some cut fruits like melon that aren't cold could be a source of bacteria growth too. Honestly, I'm more worried about touching the funky community ketchup bottle at the table than I am about eating a runny egg!
I'm sure there are more that are high risk, but definitely the ones I have listed.
Thanks for the reply. Good point about the ketchup. Have you read "Kitchen Confidential"? As I recall he said never eat anything that had hollandaise sauce since it probably had been sitting out for hours unrifrigerated.
Haven't read Kitchen Confidential. Have been meaning to!
Have you witnessed any customer-related drama or workplace drama during inspections? If so, mind sharing a story or two? Kekeke.
Oddly enough, I really haven't! At least nothing I can remember right now.
I did find a used condom in a handsink in a kitchen once. Bet there was some workplace drama of some sort there...just glad I wasn't there to witness it!
Suppose a local restaurant is closed down for health violations and then re-opens. Should I assume they continue to have problems or treat them like any other place?
Hard to say. Sometimes when they are closed, they just give up and are bought by a completely new owner. Sometimes it's the wake up call they needed and they do really well after that. Sometimes they get worse and end up closing for good.
You just never know. I'd say, you should still give them a chance. If they really did turn it around, it would suck to punish them further!
How would you recommend one clean produce? Should we be buying those bottles of spray cleaner, or will just water work?
Those bottles of spray cleaner are basically just vinegar water. Honestly, I wash mine in cool running water and scrub with my hands if necessary. If you want a veggie wash, there are recipes online for a vinegar to water ratio to make your own!
Have you ever caught someone in the act of doing something disgusting during an inspection?
Every day. Too many to list. My favorite is the guy who went into the bathroom with his gloves on, came back out with them still on, then went to make a sandwich for a guest.
In my (big) city, they've recently started started putting grades on the front of establishments.
I remember reading somewhere that places with 'grade pending' signs, had failed and had 1 week to be reinspected.
Any truth to this or do failures usually get shut down...at least where you're from?
It depends on the area and what the violations are. If they aren't immediate health hazards, places are often given a period of time (a week to 10 days) to correct the problem and then be re-inspected. I believe this is fairly common practice.
If an imminent health hazard exists (no water, no electricity, sewage back-up, pest infestation), they can be closed immediately and not opened until the issue is resolved.
Is the ice from restaurants really super dirty?
No more than anything else really. I've seen fast food operators store their open beer cans down in some of them (I thought it was creative anyway- still a violation!). I've also some pretty nasty slime mold in some of them, but for the most part, there are far worse things!
What signs/red flags can I look for to know if a restaurant kitchen is clean or dirty?*
*Short of walking into the actual kitchen and checking, which isn't always possible.
Honestly, go with your gut- it is usually right.
Other indicators include: insects of ANY kind (the smallest flies indicate dirty drains/conditions), weird odors, lack of attention to detail in the dining room, etc. Watch the employees' hands how many things are they touching...are they directly touching your food? Do you ever see them wash them? Are their aprons/outer garments clean? These can all be indicators.
Any advice for an young inspector studying for their REHS?
I've only dipped my little toe into Salvato's Environmental Engineering. Food science is my background and I'm a bit apprehensive regarding material covering noise pollution, emergency planning, housing, etc.
Wow! I feel for you...I remember the old "Salvato"! The only thing that got me through was forming a study group with those in other departments of my health department. We had someone from the wastewater division, someone from air quality, someone from vector control and someone from food. It really helped because we all taught each other our specialties and learned from each other.
Wish I could help more! Good luck! It sucks, but once it's over all you have to do is keep up with your CEUs and you'll never have to do it again!!!
So about this Golden Corral stuff. Are they fucking up?
See my earlier comments on this one...
Is it common or uncommon for restaurants to know of an upcoming inspection? I've worked in a few restaurants over the last nine years and each one had a similar procedure right before health inspection: clean the hell out of everything and make sure it is running to the specific health standards. Most of it was cleaning things like around the legs of coolers, hard-to-reach spaces like behind the dish machine, scrubbing the breezeway, etc. How do inspectors justify passing or failing a restaurant based on one or two inspections a year when the restaurants often get a little bit of notice an inspector is coming?
I can only speak from my experience. We would inspect "high risk" establishments once per quarter. So, if it was the third month of the quarter and you still hadn't had an inspection, you could probably guess that it was due anytime. People always told me they were "expecting" me. As I said earlier, a bad habit is a bad habit and they get noticed during inspections.
As far as failing someone...that word has different meanings in different jurisdictions. A facility "earns" the violations they receive- we aren't making them up. So a place can just as easily get a perfect inspection as they can a "failing" one. It just depends on what is occurring during that short snapshot in time that we are there.
From what I understand, public health officials have the authority to arrest sick people who refuse treatment and immediately close restaurants that are in super violation of health codes. Did you have this authority?
I did not have the authority to arrest anyone. I was a sworn peace officer and could write citations, but not the power to arrest- that would be an actual officer's duty where I am from. Maybe in some smaller communities that could be the case.
Most inspectors have the authority to immediately close an establishment if there is an imminent health hazard. These usually involve no water, no electricity, free flowing sewage through the kitchen, or pest infestation. Usually the closure is lifted as soon as the issue has been rectified without having to go through the courts. An example is when a water main broke in one section of town, we had to close all food establishments in the area. Once it was repaired and water restored, they were able to open back up for business.
Generally large counties mean fairly rural areas. Or did you mean population wise?
Both! Mostly large city, suburbs and some rural.
So, how did you land that job? I was considering it for a while.
Just kind of fell into it. Worked in a food processing plant, which led to working for the USDA for a bit. From there I saw the posting for the health department- applied and got it!
What is the biggest country in the us?
County not CountRy
Thoughts on this? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IKXrL5syc_s
Please see my comments on this from earlier tonight.
Ah, sorry, didn't look first.
No problem...just trying to reply to everyone and don't want to duplicate! :)
What do you think about the current problem with the maleic acid found in some of Taiwan's food. I heard they cause kidney damage in large doses, but how vigilant should consumers in the United States be?
Speaking as a boba lover who will go through withdrawal soon.
I'm sorry, but I'm not up to speed on this one. Wish I could help!
Do restaurants with a long history of cleanliness and lack of health violations slip off the grid a little? I work at a pizza place, and our health inspector hasn't showed up in while. My boss and I have been curious about this
Anything is possible. Inspectors are only there for the shortest snapshot in time. Sometimes we end up coming in when the snapshot is kinda ugly!
how does one get a job in food safety. I'd love it!
There are plenty of openings out there! Health departments typically require a 4 year degree with a minimum of 30 science credits (this is a requirement to sit for the registration exam), but not all of them require that. There are many third-party auditors out there too that are far less stringent. If you're serious about it, send me a private message and I'll see what I can do to point you in the right direction.
What is the most disgusting or horrifying event from your career have you experienced ever?
The walk-in cooler mentioned in an earlier post. Just nasty. I can still smell it and it's been about 7 years!
EDIT: The dead goat carcass on the roof was a close second- I almost forgot about that one (see earlier post).
I used to work as a health inspector here in Australia. We usually (99% of the time) did unannounced inspections. However, some restaurants we didn't. Mainly because they were run by ethnic Chinese/Vietnamese with connections to organised crime. Walking in unannounced to a kitchen was very risky as you didn't know what else happened in there.
Did you have any similar experiences?
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