When County Health Inspections Go Bad, They Go Really Bad — And May Involve Meat Tenderizers
On a Friday afternoon in May 2014, Maricopa County health inspector Jessica Reighard entered the kitchen of Wahsun, a popular Chinese restaurant in Phoenix, and found a man cleaning furiously.
Apparently not furiously enough.
Health code violations stacked up quickly as Reighard gazed around the room. Food sat out on the kitchen’s dirty counters and the ceiling was “black with dust,” according to an internal report she would later file with supervisors.
The restaurant’s biggest problem was refrigeration. None of the coolers, the inspector wrote, kept food at the proper temperature. She began explaining to the married couple who owned the restaurant why she had to suspend their permit, temporarily closing the restaurant.
This was when the yelling started.
Over and over, Reighard wrote, Yit Kiu Szeto yelled, “Easy, easy, be happy! Just close us if you are going to close us, and be happy!” The inspector asked if she could please finish speaking.
Szeto’s wife, Chao Xie, now yelling with her husband, lunged at the inspector. The couple shouted profanities and wagged their fingers; the man even poked Reighard in the face a few times, the inspector detailed in her report.
While she dialed 911, the man picked up what the inspector would later identify as “possibly a meat tenderizer” and slammed it into a stainless steel prep table twice.
Then he swung it toward the inspector, missing her by just a few inches, according to a police report. Reighard ran out of the restaurant, leaving her computer and phone behind.
Phoenix police officers found the inspector outside Wahsun “crying and shaking,” according to court documents. A criminal case against Szeto would drag on until February 2016, almost two years after the original incident. In a plea agreement, Szeto pleaded no contest to one count of disorderly conduct, a charge downgraded from aggravated assault. He declined comment for this story through his wife, on the advice of legal counsel.
The health inspector is a much-maligned figure in the restaurant industry. From the restaurateur’s perspective, too often inspectors are out to get the little guy, stomping into their businesses with a clipboard, looking to regulate anything and everything in their sacred kitchens. But internal documents obtained by New Times in a public records request reveal that Maricopa County health inspectors do not have an easy job. They’re facing stressed-out restaurant owners, who often panic when written up for health-code violations, often posted online for the public to judge. And owners don’t always take the news well. In the past few years, inspectors have been screamed at, demeaned, and even backhanded.
These are the stories missing from the inspection reports you can read online — instead, they’re detailed in internal documents the department calls “near-miss reports.” The National Safety Council — a nonprofit organization advocating for worker safety — recommends the near-miss system as a way for workplaces to document events that don’t result in a worker’s injury, but could have.
The near-miss reports give a glimpse into the more dangerous side of a county health inspector’s job. In the last three years, employees of the Maricopa County Environmental Services (MCES) filed 29 reports — mostly about incidents in the field — out of more than 180,000 food-related inspections, says Johnny Diloné, a department spokesperson.
Only two of the reports from the past three years involved the police — at Wahsun and during an incident at Chandler’s BBQ and Beer Festival. Out of the 29 reports, at least a dozen involved verbal abuse directed at inspectors, and in three cases, things turned physical.
The internal reports demonstrate what went wrong during an inspection where tensions escalated, according to Andrew Linton, the division manager at Maricopa County Environmental Services.
“It’s also so we can look at the situation to see if there’s something we can do better in terms of communicating or how we’re handling a situation,” he says.
But an anonymous source within the department says he/she has seen little action taken against abusive owners who cross the line.
In one report New Times reviewed, the operator of an international food booth at Chandler’s BBQ and Beer Festival (Environmental Services also inspects food stands at festivals) backhanded an inspector in the face during an argument. Inspectors repeatedly recommended denying future permits to the operator in the near-miss reports, but Diloné confirmed the department continued to issue permits to the operator.
“I don’t know why they’re afraid to pull that trigger,” the anonymous county employee says.
Health inspectors are walking a delicate line these days. The world is more paranoid than ever about food safety, with the threat of E. coli and norovirus outbreaks, like those linked to Chipotle. Inspectors are trained to scour restaurants for violations that silently could spread deadly foodborne illness.
Food, for instance, needs to be cooled in restaurants to certain temperatures in certain timeframes: from 135°F to 70°F in two hours, and from 70°F to 41°F in four hours. It seems oddly specific, but it’s all done to keep microorganisms from growing on food, germs that could easily get someone sick.
Enforcing that is not always pretty. But Maricopa County Environmental Services staff still want to be friendly.
The department has taken a lot of steps to buck the stereotype of the unfriendly health inspector in the past few years. Linton says they often seek feedback from the restaurant industry, who he refers to as “stakeholders.”
“We’ve worked really hard, especially in the last three or four years, to open up avenues of communication with our stakeholders,” he says.
For example, the department has created a several-day delay between an inspection and when an inspection report is posted online, leaving time for operators to dispute parts of a report.
And in 2014, MCES started holding stakeholder meetings a few times a a year, so restaurants — or anyone, really — could voice concerns and suggest changes to the inspection process, Linton says.
The anonymous county employee believes the department is becoming too business friendly, letting owners step all over inspectors.
It’s not a new accusation. In 2011, MCES adopted an entirely voluntary rating system, where restaurants can choose to take a grade after an inspection or opt out. And last year, the department did away with food-service worker cards, letting restaurant owners decide what food-safety training they want to give employees.
The anonymous MCES employee wishes department officials would take a harder line on restaurants when owners and employees are abusive, like in the case of Wahsun.
Twelve days after the meat tenderizer incident, the department lifted the restaurant’s suspension after a re-inspection — even after the assault claims — according to Diloné. Then, during a routine inspection that August, Wahsun’s permit was once again suspended because of a food temperature issue. Because the restaurant had two suspensions in a year, the county revoked its permit and Wahsun soon closed.
Wahsun’s former owners declined to comment. In a sentencing memo submitted in Maricopa County court, Szeto is described as a Chinese immigrant devastated over the loss of his restaurant.
An attorney for Szeto also wrote that her client was in a state of emotional distress, claiming health inspector Jessica Reighard used a racial slur against him during the inspection. Reighard, a chairperson of the department’s diversity council, denies the racial slur allegation.
In the eyes of Environmental Services, the popular Chinese restaurant lost its permit because of health-code violations and suspensions, Linton says, not because of abusive behavior toward an inspector.
No part of the county’s health code specifically lays out a zero-tolerance policy for abusive behavior in restaurants. However, one part of the code states, “no person shall molest or resist the Department in the discharge of its duties.”
County Environmental Services employees are required to go through communication training, which Linton says prepares them for dealing with hostile situations.
“The main thing we still tell inspectors is to remove yourself immediately from a situation before it escalates,” he says.
A Maricopa County health inspector left her house around 8:15 one autumn morning in 2013. Kids loaded into the Hummer, she backed out of her driveway and headed east.
Suddenly, according to the account she’d later write, a Black Mercedes screeched around the corner, almost colliding with her. The driver of the Mercedes swerved, stopping right by her window, and made eye contact before driving off, according to the near-miss report.
Inspector Lindsay Mozena recognized this man.
She had clashed with him at Festival Peoria the previous weekend. Mozena remembered him holding a beer wearing a baseball cap, turning aggressive when she suspended the permit for a taco booth with a laundry list of violations, including a fly infestation. He refused to give his name, but allegedly told inspectors they were “making a mistake” if they didn’t work with him.
Then, Mozena reported, she came face to face with the aggressive man again, and this time the encounter was suspiciously close to her house, with her kids in the car.
The inspector, who is no longer with the department, filed a near-miss report that October, but chose not to call police about the road rage incident — a decision left to inspectors, division manager Linton says. Department officials followed up with permit holders they knew were at the event, but never found anyone with knowledge of the incident.
In the near-miss reports, the road rage incident stands out as extreme. But basic rage (without four wheels) is a more common theme.
“Shut up!” shouted an owner of Inside the Bungalow in Mesa to a health inspector, according to the near-miss report for the incident in April 2014, in which the owner is described as “explosively abusive.”
“You’re going to just shut me down,” the report claims the woman’s husband loudly kept repeating to the female inspector. They accused her of using a bad thermometer during the café’s last inspection. Ultimately, the inspector left the café, the inspection unfinished.
Online, the inspection report for that day is simply labeled “ineffective visit,” with one line in the report stating that the inspector couldn’t do her job “due to obstruction by operator.”
A supervisor followed up with the café’s owners about that day’s behavior, and a spokesperson says inspectors have not reported any further incidents. An owner from Inside the Bungalow declined to comment to New Times.
A similar “ineffective visit” went down at Lost Dutchman Coffee House in Mesa in September 2015. An inspector reported that an employee was in a “highly agitated state” during an inspection, telling her, “I am sick of this baloney!”
A follow-up inspection was without incident a week later, but the owner still appeared agitated, according to the report.
New Times was unable to reach anyone from Lost Dutchman for comment.
One restaurant owner did share his perspective from a dramatic inspection.
In December 2014, at Mike’s Burgers in Gilbert, an inspector described owner Mike Canzona as throwing containers with “veins popping out of his neck and arms,” apparently angry about a food temperature reading that required him to throw out tomatoes.
Canzona remembers that day. He says the inspector originally told him to throw everything out — and the small-business owner started to panic about tossing thousands of dollars’ worth of food into the garbage. The inspector eventually clarified that only the tomatoes needed to go, and Canzona says he apologized to her.
But he says a revolving cast of inspectors and unclear expectations from the department added to the tension of that day.
“[Inspectors] come in, and they’re young and in positions of power, and they have this attitude before they even walk in our stores,” Canzona says, adding, “It can be very intimidating.”
Linton says his employees aren’t “food cops” out to get restaurant owners. And while the department’s ultimate mission is to protect public health, he says they want to help establishments stay in business.
The anonymous county employee agrees with the goal of achieving that balance — to a certain extent.
“I don’t want anyone to fail or be closed down. But at the same time, I don’t think you can go around treating people like that.”
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