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Why do people love to tell me about their food-provoked illnesses? Perhaps they're concerned for my occupational safety. More likely it's similar to that perverse urge we all have to tell our newly pregnant friend about a woman who gave birth to a three-headed sock puppet.
Either way, though I sympathize, I really truly don't care to hear the details. I've done my part to protect my tummy: Prior to a trip last year to Africa, I dutifully got inoculated against polio, diphtheria, typhoid, the plague, botulism, cholera and hepatitis. As such, I'm the safest dinner date in town.
For those with less sound immune systems, though, fear not. The food in the majority of restaurants, grocery stores and convenience stores is certified safe. Chances are you've not become ill from eating out, but have a cold, allergies, a hangover, or simply a bad mood. And, thanks to our friends at the Maricopa County Environmental Health Department (MCEHD), eating out is getting even safer.
By state law, all food establishments already are required to be inspected at least twice a year (although MCEHD specialists say they strive to check three to four times annually). On January 1, Maricopa County initiated a new requirement that all restaurants and food providers have a "certified food manager" on their payroll. This is akin to appointing an in-house fire marshal, as some large companies do -- someone who gets in trouble if violations occur but doesn't even get to wear a cool hat.
Chapeau or no, being a certified food manager is serious stuff, requiring knowledge of more than the complete lyrics to that classic ditty: "So wash your hands after going to the bathroom. . . ." These managers undergo training, become experts on running safe kitchens and help protect us against the more than 30 types of food-borne illnesses known to the MCEHD. Some of these toxins simply make us feel queasy; the nastier ones attack the digestive system or liver; but most are short-lived (one to three days) and are not life-threatening, the MCEHD assures us.
While this is of little comfort to those of us who have suffered food poisoning, and with it the certainty that death lurks just around the corner, restaurateurs would like to remind us that our last meal is not necessarily to blame. It can take from 30 minutes to 30 days before you actually feel sick from a food-borne illness, says the MCEHD, so it's hard to tell just where you picked it up.
Besides, restaurant inspections are unannounced, strictly enforced and much pickier than the average home cook's requirements. A Field Services Division check sheet categorizes everything from the food's source (from an approved provider), temperature, wrapping and storage, to kitchen equipment, plumbing, rest room facilities, employee lockers and even lighting fixtures. One score below 70 puts a restaurant on six months' probation. Failing repeat inspections during this time can lead to a permit suspension, meaning a restaurant is considered a health risk and is shut down.
Because inspection criteria are so specific, penalties can affect the best of eateries. God forbid anyone ever put my kitchen under the microscope (the mere presence of animals is strictly prohibited, and at my home, dog fur is primary decor).
How serious are the violations? It depends. Consider one of the nation's most celebrated restaurants: our very own Vincent Guerithault on Camelback. A review of two years of inspection reports shows this lovely establishment always rakes in 80s and 90s; its most recent exam brought a score of 95.
Don't cancel your reservations, because here's where Vincent's failed:
1 point. "In use food/ice dispensing utensils not properly stored." Translation: Scoops in sugar, flour, etc. must be stored with their handles up.
2 points. "Food contact surfaces of equipment/utensils not thoroughly cleaned." Translation: Gaskets (the rubber insulation strips in a refrigerator door) noted dirty.
1 point. "Walls, ceilings and attached equipment not in good repair." Translation: Missing ceiling tile in dish wash area.
1 point. "A suitable thermometer not provided in cold storage unit." Translation: Thermometer missing from reach-in cooler on cook line.
All in all, no big deal.
For other restaurants, though, the strict inspection methodology is greatly appreciated. A January 5 inspection of Country Boys at 42nd Avenue and Bethany Home, for example, brings a failing score of 62, with violations that even my bestial kitchen condemns. This was not a routine inspection, but prompted by a complaint. I'm queasy as I read the report and its criticisms: Ice-machine lines hanging into the sink drain, causing backflow hazards. Food containers, and worse, toxic chemicals, not properly labeled. Public/employee rest rooms with neither soap, disposable hand towels, nor toilet tissue.
A major no-no is potentially hazardous food being held above 45 degrees Fahrenheit, which our Country Boys aggressively violate, according to the report. The inspection also finds raw meat stored above other foods, food stored on the floor, decaying citrus and employee drink cups sitting in the ice bin. Equipment fails, too, with rusty, chipped graters and spatulas, and the doors of an ice-cream freezer held together with plastic wrap.
I'm most intrigued, though, by a notation of a walk-in cooler found full of stuffed animals and other personal items. Waiter, there's a teddy bear in my soup?