Despite an uptick in the number of food establishments applying for complex permits, Spokane Regional Health District inspectors say the number of health inspections that result in code violations or reinspections hasn’t increased.
Steven Main, food safety program manager for the health district, says it issued about 2,420 permits for food establishments in Spokane County last year, 695 of which are considered complex food establishments. That’s a 6 percent increase compared with 655 complex food establishment permits in 2014.
While the total number of permits hasn’t increased—the health district issued a total of 2,450 permits in 2016—Main characterized the increase in complex food establishments as being “not a huge amount of growth, but it is significant.”
He says complex food establishments are those with larger menus that typically involve more complicated food preparation processes.
“Those processes include cooling potentially hazardous foods previously cooked on site, reheating those foods after cooling, and hot holding food for four hours or more,” he says. “The cooking and reheating processes in particular can elevate the risk of food borne illness quite a bit.”
The health district inspects most food establishment categories once each year, but those with complex permits are inspected twice a year due to the larger risk.
“This could just be a recent trend in the food-service industry, driven by customer eating habits,” he says. “Some people want more than just cook-and-serve, which is all a limited permit allows for.”
Food establishments include restaurants, grocery delis, convenience stores with ready-to-eat foods, food trucks, school and college cafeterias, and temporary food gatherings, such as Pig Out in the Park, among others.
Main says in 2017, the district responded to 359 general complaints from the public about the safety of food establishments, and 153 additional complaints from individuals claiming food from an establishment resulted in illness.
Those numbers compare to totals of 246 general complaints from the public, and 175 additional illness complaints in 2016. Main says the increase in general complaints from the public may simply be due to added ease in reporting systems.
“It’s gotten easier for the public to get in touch with us, and report on potential food safety hazards than it was previously,” he says. “In terms of cases of probable illness, we’ve stayed pretty average overall.”
He says so far this year the health district has conducted about 1,579 routine health inspections of permitted food establishments, which is roughly on pace to meet last year’s total of 3,200 inspections.
“We’re about half way through the year, so I’d say that’s pretty average in comparison,” he says. “But we do see more food establishments using complex processes than previously, and we’ve been making an effort to increase education as a result.”
In order to operate, food establishments must have a permit, with categories being determined according to menu and methods of food preparation.
Main says permits vary in cost depending on type, and range in price from $290 for a basic permit on up to $800 for a complex permit. Routine health inspections are both included in permit fees, and also a large part of how permit fees are determined.
In conducting inspections, Main says the health district follows the Food and Drug Administration’s 2009 food code.
“A lot of research has gone into creating that code, and it’s the national standard,” he says. “Our local code has just a couple subtle differences, which were added by the local health board to include inspections for food trucks and temporary food establishments.”
Main says all routine inspections are risk-based, meaning most of what inspectors are checking for are basic safety in food handling, preparation, cooking, cooling, and storage.
For each inspection the code lists certain items as either “red” for high risk factors proven to be direct causes of food-borne disease, or “blue” for lower risk factors proven to be indirect causes of food-borne disease.
“As we’re looking for those high-risk items, we might also note lesser items having to do with sanitation or broken or inefficient equipment,” he says.
Main says inspectors often will ask management staff to participate in inspections, both to help the process move smoothly and to aid in understanding.
“We don’t want to just check boxes. We’re more interested in getting a sense of how the business operates,” he says. “We want to see how they prepare their food in order to better evaluate the associated risks and work with them to prevent food-borne disease before it even occurs.”
Main says common violations inspectors see most often include contamination by hands, improper refrigeration, and improper food storage.
“The biggest one by far is hand washing procedures,” he says. “Whether it’s improper handwashing, failing to wash between changing gloves, or sinks with poor access or missing items.”
“All food-borne disease is preventable, so the idea is to help the person in charge, whether it’s a manager, owner, or chef, to understand the reasoning for these requirements, and help them to integrate them into daily operations,” says Main.
If code violations are identified during an inspection, the establishment is asked to correct them or begin working to correct them at the time of inspection, Main says.
“If it’s a high enough risk item, we do need to come back and check to ensure it’s been corrected long-term,” he says. “That means scheduling a first reinspection for no more than 30 days after the initial inspection.”
He says the restaurant also is offered an educational visit, to help correct items ahead of a first reinspection.
Main says the district completed 340 first reinspections in 2017, and of those 35 required a second reinspection and educational visit.
“Last year I’d say just over 10 percent of all inspections we did resulted in a reinspection,” he says. “Which isn’t bad considering the amount of staff and management turnover some of these establishments see each year.”
If at the time of the first reinspection, officials encounter any repeated violations Main says, they then have to schedule a second reinspection within 10 days.
“If an establishment requires that second reinspection, they’re also given a mandatory education visit sometime beforehand,” he says.
Main says the district’s inspectors performed 71 educational visits last year, some of which were at the request of the establishment, and some of which were in response to inspection findings.
“Many establishments request an educational visit simply because they want to ensure their staff has all been trained in best food practices,” he says. “Consistency in staff management definitely helps us to partner better with food establishments.”
In terms of other food industry trends, Main says the district has also noticed more establishments that are using specialized processes to make and preserve their own food.
“The risk involved in, say, making your own bacon, or smoking your own sausage, comes when you add nitrates or nitrites for preservation,” he says. “If it’s not done correctly it can be harmful.”
Another popular trend Main says the district is concerned about is pop-up restaurants, also known as supper clubs or temporary restaurants.
Main says this style of restaurant is sometimes used by local chefs to showcase certain foods or cooking styles, but they often pose a problem for health inspectors.
“The trouble is we don’t yet have a permit category that allows for them, and they’re up and down again so quickly that it’s hard to track them and conduct an inspection,” he says.
Looking ahead, he says the district continues to work with the local Food Advisory Council, an organization consisting of 12 food industry representatives, to provide advice and educational resources for area food establishments.
“The Food Advisory Council is a collaborative effort between the health district and the restaurant industry, and our mission is to provide education and serve in an advisory capacity,” he says. “We meet three times a year to discuss fees required for permits, regulations and revisions of regulations, and educational campaigns.”
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