Area restaurants fare well during inspections

TRAVERSE CITY – One unfortunate day last spring, a customer at a Traverse City eatery sat down at a table and ordered a bowl of soup and half a roast beef sandwich.

After taking a couple bites, she "discovered a dirty Band-Aid inside her sandwich, which she had been chewing," according to a letter that the Grand Traverse County Environmental Health Department sent to the restaurant a few days later. The patron had quickly "notified the waitress who admitted that one of the cooks had been wearing a Band-Aid during lunch preparation."

If the restaurant had complied with a state health rule passed in 1999, the chef would have been wearing throw-away latex gloves, and the altogether unappetizing "condiment" would never have turned up in the sandwich.

Incidents like this are nightmares to restaurateurs, not to mention unsuspecting patrons. And if one unhappy customer can be counted on to tell 10 acquaintances about an uninspired meal, just think how quickly news about a surprise encounter with a slightly chewed flesh-colored adhesive strip will spread through a community.

Fortunately for restaurants and their patrons, food safety problems in Grand Traverse County are rarely this dramatic. In any case, it's the job of Tom Buss, the county's director of Environmental Services, to see that they aren't.

These infractions notwithstanding, the county and its more than 400 food-service operations have generally fared well in the audits performed by the Michigan Department of Agriculture every three years.

These inspections look at the health department's procedures as well as conditions in individual restaurants. In the last inspection cycle, Buss said, the county missed just one of 20 mandatory requirements, and none at all during the previous two cycles-a performance level that "is pretty much unheard of in the state," he said.

Buss has been involved in food safety issues in Grand Traverse County for more than 30 years. One might think that his file cabinets full of restaurant inspection reports, in all their unsavory detail, might have soured him on the simple pleasure of dining out. But that hasn't happened yet.

"I enjoy going out to eat," he said with a laugh, "and my family and I go out to eat frequently."

Still, he points out that restaurants have to deal with serious food-handling issues every day, and the public has a stake in how well they do it.

"I think the public, in general, assumes these places must be safe if they are open for business," he said. Nothing is automatic about food safety in restaurants, however.

On one hand, restaurants need to take the initiative, making sure their employees are well trained and that their food-safety systems work. On the other hand, health inspections play a role. Every six months, the Environmental Health department's inspectors make unannounced visits to each restaurant, school cafeteria or other year-round vendor, looking at everything from cleanliness to the storage of time sensitive food.

When they find infractions, they note them in their files as either "non-critical" or "critical." Critical violations may pose an immediate health threat, related to food spoilage or contamination with chemicals, for example.

For instance, at a Traverse City restaurant in December 2006, an employee was "observed using a soiled hand towel tucked into clothing." When a health department representative returned for a visit a month later, the inspection found still more: stored foods not labeled with what is known as a "to eat date." That was considered a critical violation, department records indicate.

That date spells out how long an already prepared food can be safely stored, which is no more than a few days. Without it, the dish could theoretically remain on a cooler shelf for weeks or months before the staff confused it with something prepared just a day earlier.

That same inspection found a number of non-critical violations: a hand sink wasn't provided with towels, and a restroom area wasn't furnished with either a self-closing door or sufficient mechanical ventilation.

The department's inspectors assure that critical issues are fixed quickly, Buss said. That usually means right on the spot. If serious violations continue and remain uncorrected, the restaurant's operating license is at risk.

"Normally, if there are critical violations, we try to get them corrected while we are there," Buss said. "But some things, like plumbing problems, can't be. For that, we generally come back in two weeks, and certainly no more than 30 days later."

"But if it's a temperature problem or some other immediate issue, we wouldn't give it two weeks," he said. "We would want that corrected right then."

A restaurant can commit a violation simply by stocking too many cups at a fast-food counter (where they are exposed to airborne dirt or contaminants) or by failing to post a sign in the restroom telling employees to wash their hands.

The level of violation escalates quickly where temperature, cleanliness and chemicals are concerned. For example, the failure to keep most heated meat dishes at more than 140 degrees is a critical violation. A restaurant on U.S. 31 was cited for making that mistake last November.

Refrigeration temperatures also have to be maintained correctly. Mike Trubac, regional vice president at Schelde Enterprises Inc., which has a strong inspection record, said a systematic approach is the key to staying out of trouble.

"You have to periodically temp your food with instant temp thermometers," Trubac said. "We have a time log that indicates when we have to check temperatures at various times during the day."

The omnipresent menu warnings about eating insufficiently cooked eggs and meats have their roots in food handling rules, too. Michigan law requires those notices, and a failure to post them is a critical violation.

Similarly, it's not hard for a restaurant to run afoul of rules on chemicals and insecticides. Health regulations call for toxic substances and food to be kept apart, even if each is in an enclosed container. If an employee were to inadvertently place a can of bug spray on a window sill above a food prep table for just a few seconds, that would be a serious violation. So would a degreaser kept on a prep counter.

The Schelde group has put its own inspections high on the corporate agenda, Trubac said.

"We do two corporate inspections a year," he said. "That's the time when we address what needs to be painted and things like that. We also periodically review the food codes to make sure we are not missing anything."

When an unannounced inspection does occur, "our manager walks around with the health inspector, just to make sure we are regularly checking the things they are looking for."

In the county as a whole, no restaurant has had its permit cancelled over the last decade, Buss said. He credits the extensive training given to managers and employees. The department offers free four-hour training program, called "Food Service Basics," to restaurant employees every quarter, along with its ServSafe program aimed at managers.

Ultimately, a restaurant risks losing its operating license if there is "continued noncompliance" and "ongoing critical violations" that aren't corrected, Buss said. A formal hearing is required to strip a restaurant of the license, but matters rarely reach that stage.

"Over the last 30 years, there have been formal hearings only on two occasions, and they were many years ago," Buss said. "Before we go to a formal hearing, we hold informal hearings and office conferences, and normally that's as far as it has to go."

It didn't need to go that far for the restaurant involved in the Band-Aid incident. According to the file on the matter, the inspector informed the eatery that single-use gloves need to be worn over bandages or cuts, and later monitored to see that the advice was followed. BN