Food for Thought

Vail oversees restaurant inspections at Ingham County Health Department

Linda Vail has no qualms about dining out.

She’ll happily frequent a restaurant or local pub to enjoy the atmosphere and ambience in the company of friends or family. Just don’t ask her to leave her job at the door.

As health officer for the Ingham County Health Department, a good part of Vail’s occupation is protecting the public’s well-being by overseeing restaurant inspections to ensure there is complete compliance with food handling, preparation and safety.

That’s something that doesn’t end at 5 p.m. If she’s on personal time and spots a health violation, you’re darn right she’s going to do something about it.

“I’m just trying to live my life outside of work. But I am the county health officer. I will speak to a manager, then out comes the business card, then I’m calling one of my environmental health officers, then I’m waiting for them to get there. I don’t encounter these things all the time – but if I do encounter something, I can’t not say something,” Vail said. She detailed several rather humorous anecdotes about being out on the town or running late to a meeting when duty stopped her in her tracks.

While her stories exposed a more whimsical side to her work, Vail is quick to point out the immense public safety value in the work her team performs.

“It’s work that goes unseen. Our work is the work that keeps things from happening. People are unaware just how much work goes into what we do,” Vail said. “People (in the food service industry) are going to try and do their best, but some are going to cut corners sometimes. People can get sick. That’s where a lot of people can get sick. People can die.”

The fact that the work of restaurant inspections goes largely unnoticed by the public because instances of food poisoning or outbreaks of something such as norovirus are so few and far between is what Vail called “the real unseen victory” in her job. Happy patrons mean a healthy food environment.

During any given year, there are approximately 950 fixed food licenses in operation at brick-and-mortar establishments in Ingham County and 120 temporary licenses handed out for festivals and events. On top of those, there are typically 30-35 special transitory food unit licenses being issued for things such as food trucks. All of the above receive a minimum of two inspections annually – or more if additional inspections are required for follow-up compliance – which are conducted by a seven-member team of sanitarians (the actual inspectors and investigators) on Vail’s environmental health unit. That herculean task is slightly offset with some assistance: the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development conducts the inspections for sites such as grocery stores and fast-food establishments linked to a gas station. Plus, Michigan State University is contracted to conduct inspections of its facilities like the Kellogg Hotel & Conference Center and Breslin Student Events Center, with the Ingham County Health Department spot auditing the university’s reports.

While the relationship between restaurant inspectors and restaurant owners may seem like it would be an adversarial one, Vail sad that isn’t the case. She said there has been a general culture shift from a standpoint of governmental regulatory compliance to one more like a partnership. Inspectors want to be seen as there to help and to collaborate with restaurant owners on bringing everything in line with code. The onus of creating that cooperative atmosphere falls squarely on the county, Vail said.

“I believe it’s an attitude we have to embrace,” she said. “Our enforcement should take on a more service approach. Let’s help them figure out how to say ‘yes.’ Let’s offer them a pathway to go that is positive.”

She’s found that most restaurant owners not only want the help but appreciate it. That’s evident in the fact that over her 12 years as a health officer, Vail can’t recall a single time she had to pursue the permanent closure of an establishment. In fact, the vast majority of the citations issued by inspectors are for minor issues that can be fixed on the spot such as a lack of labeling and dating products or temperature regulation for food holding.

In the event of a more extreme incident, such as where a sickness outbreak is linked back to an eatery, Vail said the collaborative relationship typically comes back into play and the business owner is willing to temporarily shutter the doors to correct any issue.

“We try to work with the restaurant. Usually they’ll voluntarily close,” Vail said. “I can’t think of a time where I’ve ever had to order a restaurant to close.”

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