The Business of Food Safety

For many, the most top-of-mind issue when going out to eat is how the food tastes. Unless something goes especially awry during the experience, it’s rare to consider what was taking place in the preparation of the meal­ – kind of like the old saying typically attributed to Otto von Bismarck about laws and sausages.

However, a small team of people at the Ingham County Health Department make it their business to not only know how the sausage is being made, but to ensure it’s being presented to you in the safest manner possible.

County Health Officer Linda Vail oversees the staff of seven sanitarians at the department who conduct the thousands of restaurant inspections in Ingham County each year. An entry-level sanitarian position in the county requires a bachelor’s degree in environmental health or a related field followed by six months of job training.

While a sanitarian’s duties are primarily thought of as related to the kitchen area, his or her job involves taking stock of all areas within a food establishment – from proper labeling and dating of opened items to temperature controls, spacing issues and placement of equipment and supplies. A sanitarian even makes note of proper signage for employees (e.g., handwashing) and reviews a restaurant’s menus (for requirements of warnings of raw or undercooked items on the menu).

In the event there is an outbreak of an illness, the sanitarians essentially become “food detectives,” Vail explained. It’s their job to talk to people who have become sick.

“What you do is get a three-day food history from someone,” she said. “Typically, most symptoms (from food poisoning) are going to show up 15 to 30 hours later. It’s not going to be the last thing you ate. It’s going to be what you ate yesterday.”

From there, sanitarians can determine where the illness originated, identify the source of the illness within that location and make sure proper corrections are made. There are three types of violations issued during a restaurant inspection.

  • Priority violations address the elimination, prevention or reduction to an acceptable level of hazards associated with foodborne illness or injury. These violations have a quantifiable measure to show control of hazards such as cooking, cooling and handwashing.
  • Priority Foundation violations are those that, while still important, do not pose an immediate health hazard and should be corrected in a timely manner. They include items that require the purposeful incorporation of specific actions, equipment or procedures by management to attain control of risk factors that contribute to foodborne illness or injury, such as personnel training, infrastructure, necessary equipment, record keeping and labeling.
  • Core violations relate to general sanitation, operational controls, sanitation standard operating procedures, facilities or structures, equipment design, or general maintenance.

Vail said the vast majority of violations found during an inspection are minor issues that can typically be corrected before the inspection is even finished.

For items that require more time to correct, such as equipment repair, a follow-up inspection is required. If the issue persists, the county health department will request an office conference at the department with the owner or manager of the business to review the severity of the violation and the measures necessary to correct it.

“We talk to them about what they have to do and get them to understand the steps that they need to take to do it,” Vail said.

For something such as the hot or cold holding of food above or below the required temperatures, that may involve the business being required to make daily temperature logs for the county. However, if an office conference fails to meet health department expectations, the matter moves to an informal hearing. At the informal hearing, the business owner is informed that failure to make a correction of a violation could result in a formal hearing being convened, which could result in the suspension or revocation of the license to operate.

“If a formal hearing is essential, that’s where the process of removal of a license for an establishment begins,” Vail said.

Yet she noted that in her years as the county health officer – first in Kalamazoo County, then moving to Ingham County five years ago – she has never seen a case make it to the formal hearing level. A high priority of a business owner is, generally, to remain in business.

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