Health Department's Goal Safe Dining

February 13, 2007
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According to the CDC, about 325,000 people are hospitalized each year with diagnoses of food poisoning, and approximately 5,000 never recover from the illness. The estimated cost of medical expenses, lost wages and lower productivity in the workplace from foodborne illnesses ranges from a low of $6.5 billion to a high of $34.9 billion each year.

But thankfully, a 2005 report released by the CDC showed healthy declines in foodborne infections from 1996 through 2004, led by a 42 percent drop in E. coli infections and a 45 percent decrease in Yersinia. A goodly portion of the credit for the lower incidences of food poisoning has to go to restaurant owners and local health departments, like the one in Kent County, for their combined efforts to operate successful inspection programs.

The Environmental Health division of the Kent County Health Department directs and operates the food safety inspection program, and last fall the department honored 106 local restaurants with the 2005 Public Health Food Safety Awards.

"It takes a tremendous amount of work to run a safe food service operation. These owners and their staffs should be recognized for their efforts. We want their patrons to know that these establishments have met some pretty rigorous guidelines and are safe places to dine," said Cathy Raevsky, the department's administrative health officer.

It might come as a surprise to learn that Kent County is home to 1,857 restaurants and that each one is inspected twice each year by the division's 10 food sanitarians.

That means 3,714 inspections are made annually with each sanitarian doing 371 each year — or slightly more than one a day if non-inspections days such as weekends and holidays are included in the count. The number rises to 1.5 inspections per day if those 115-or-so non-inspection days in a calendar year aren't part of the equation.

Whichever daily number of inspections is used, the bottom line is inspectors pay a lot of unannounced visits to restaurants each year.

"When they're in the kitchen area, they're looking for cleanliness issues, obviously, but they're looking for conditions that are directly related to foodborne illnesses," said Amy Morris, the department's community relations coordinator.

"Those would be critical violations, like holding temperatures: Are these hot enough or cold enough for the food? They're looking for cross-contamination: Are they using separate cutting boards for raw foods, like vegetables, that you would eat without cooking? Are they cutting chicken on a different cutting board? Are they all wearing gloves?" she explained.

Other issues the inspectors look for include whether kitchen workers are wearing hair nets, if cleaning solvents are situated too close to food items, and if food is stored properly. Failing any one of these issues means a violation would be issued to the restaurant, as mandated by the state's 2000 Food Code that regulates safety in eating establishments.

"They have a very extensive checklist of things that they look for in the kitchens," said Morris.

But the inspections aren't limited to a restaurant's kitchen, as bathrooms and the dining room also are examined for cleanliness. A dirty bathroom will result in the restaurant receiving a citation, which is a lesser offense than a violation.

The idea behind the county's inspection program, of course, is to prevent contaminated meats, cheeses and vegetables from being served to the public. And the awards presented to the restaurant owners signify that they and their employees have taken their responsibilities to the public very seriously.

"It means that they haven't gotten any critical violations for that year," said Morris.

The awards presented last fall were for 2005 and were presented across three categories of restaurants. Limited food service places such as taverns, ice cream shops and snack bars are grouped under the Class A designation. Fast food restaurants, cafeterias and caterers make up Class B, while full-service restaurants with advanced food preparation comprise Class C.

Class A and B restaurants can't receive any violation for the year in order to win the Public Health Food Safety Award, while those in Class C can have only two violations over 12 months. Of the 106 local restaurants that received the 2006 food safety awards, 20 were in Class A, 63 were in Class B, and 23 were in Class C.

"They really adhered to the regulations inside the food codes and were exemplary in their practices, food preparation and handling of food," said Morris.

And because only 106 of the county's 1,857 restaurants won food safety awards, that doesn't mean the remaining 1,751 were unhealthy places to eat. It means that the non-award winners didn't have as perfect a 2005 as the award winners had.

"If they didn't get awards, it didn't mean they weren't clean enough. Maybe the Class A's had only one violation, but they weren't allowed to have any violations whatsoever," said Morris.

"Class C's were only allowed to have two. Maybe it was a good restaurant, but that year they may have had three violations. The guidelines are very strict for the awards."

The latest round of awards marked the second time the health department issued the honors. In 2005, more than twice as many restaurants (224) won awards for food safety and cleanliness.

Morris said a vast majority of restaurant owners do their best to adhere to a lengthy list of guidelines that most people probably don't follow in their own homes. She also said some owners see the county's inspection program as a necessary evil at times. But she added that the inspectors aren't out to be the "bad guys" and are trying to help those owners make sure their restaurants are safe places to eat.

"We do a lot of education with the owners to make sure that they know what the food codes contain, because sometimes the rules can be confusing. And if they do get cited, we explain why, that they need to fix that and how they can do it," she said.

"There are some restaurant owners that just don't like health departments because they've had run-ins with them in the past and the relationship becomes adversarial. We don't ever want it to be that way.

"We're here to help and to keep people safe."

A Select Group

GRAND RAPIDS—Because the award criteria is so strict, it's difficult for a restaurant to win a Food Safety Award from the Kent County Health Department.

When the department's Environmental Division announced the award winners last fall, the list represented less than 6 percent of all the restaurants in the county.

The following chart lists the number of restaurants in the county by class, how many awards each class won, and the percentage of the class that won an award.

Restaurant

Total Number

Number of

Percent of

Category

In Kent County

Awards

Awards

Class A

415

20

5%

Class B

880

63

7%

Class C

562

23

4%

Totals

1,857

106

5.7%

Note: Class A restaurants offer limited food service, like taverns and snack shops. Class B is made up of fast food restaurants and cafeterias. Class C consists of full-service restaurants.

Source: Kent County Health Department, November 2006. HQX

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