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Food safety inspectors keep close eye on Washington County restaurants

The Herald-Mail - 12/17/2017

Uncooked meat such as chicken coming into contact with salad items.

Chilled food being held at too warm of a temperature or warmed food not being kept at a hot enough temperature.

They are dangerous conditions, and if not kept in check at local restaurants, they can lead to serious illness caused by salmonella or E. coli, according to Washington County Health Department officials.

But Washington County food consumers are in luck; there is a band of inspectors working to keep the dangers at bay.

The help comes in the form of three-full time and two part-time environmental health specialists at the county health department who enforce the state's food handling laws.

Know the risk

Food operations in the county are divided into three categories: high risk, moderate risk and low risk.

High-risk establishments are those where food is prepared, cooked and then cooled to prepare it for reheating later, said Dick Humbert, a licensed environmental specialist for the health department.

Many high-risk restaurants are those independently owned and operated and who employ chefs to prepare their meals, Humbert said.

Certain other establishments are also considered high risk, including those with a highly susceptible populations like nursing homes; ones with a history of food borne illness or complaints; and establishments where a large number of people are served such as prisons or schools, health department officials said.

Moderate-risk restaurants are mostly "cook and serve" establishments, such as fast-food restaurants, Humbert said.

Low-risk establishments are those where no cooking is conducted. An example would be a gas station that has a popcorn machine and serves hot dogs, Humbert said.

High-risk restaurants are to be inspected three times per year, moderate-risk restaurants are to be inspected two times per year and low-risk establishments are to be inspected once every two years, according to health department regulations.

"It's a complicated thing involving chemistry and physics," health department spokesman Rod MacRae said of food safety.

MacRae said the danger of improperly handling food can be illustrated by looking at how long it might take to cook a pot of cream of crab soup. The soup will absorb a large amount of energy to bring it boiling, MacRae said.

As a result, it takes a long time to lose that energy during cooling and the soup can remain in a dangerous temperature zone for an extended period where bacteria can develop, MacRae said.

Critical items

The most important food-handling requirements that restaurants must follow are marked as "critical items" on a scoring sheet when an environmental health specialist enters a restaurant to conduct an inspection.

Humbert said critical violations must be corrected while the health department inspector is on scene. If a critical violation cannot be immediately corrected, such as an improper sewage discharge, sanitarians can close the establishment, Humbert said.

"We will ask your patrons to leave," Humbert said.

Critical violations include serving food that has not been inspected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or a buffet line where hot food is being held at less than 135 degrees. Chilled food must be held at 41 degrees or below.

Another critical violation is not protecting food from "adulteration, spoilage and contamination," such as allowing uncooked meat to come into contact with other food, according to the regulations.

Restaurant managers are responsible for not allowing workers with infections or diarrhea to handle food, which is a critical violation, according to regulations. If a worker has an infected finger injury, the worker must have the wound properly bandaged or seepage from the wound can come in contact with food, Humbert said.

"It's sort of disgusting, but it's true," Humbert said.

Remaining items on a sanitarian's inspection sheet are "good retail practices." Violations of any of those 24 points must be corrected within 30 days.

Good retail practices relate to areas such as thawing methods; use of thermometers; labeling of products; hand washing; toxic substances; storage of wiping cloths; control of insects, rodents and animals; food-contact surfaces; garbage and refuse issues; plumbing operations; toilet areas; and ventilation and lighting.

There are 321 high-risk restaurants in the county, 400 moderate-risk eateries and 125 low-risk establishments, according to the health department.

The health department also enforces regulations for temporary stands, which might be operated by organizations like churches, and mobile units, which can be mobile barbecue stands along highways during warm weather months, MacRae and Humbert said.

There are 466 temporary stands in the county and 46 mobile units, according to the health department.

There to help

Generally, MacRae and Humbert said they believe food safety is at a good level in county restaurants.

"They know we're coming," said Humbert, who added that his staff will inspect an establishment again if they believe there is a possibility that a violation is not going to be adequately addressed.

"We have a couple bad actors, of course. Everybody does," said Humbert, who added that inspectors are well aware of who they are.

MacRae said he believes that restaurant owners generally take pride in their work, and MacRae said he sees himself and other health department staff as "educators" who are there to help restaurant owners.

Also, food safety is becoming more important in the restaurant industry, which has been marked by restaurant companies requiring workers to have ServSafe training, according to MacRae and Humbert.

ServSafe is a food and beverage safety training and certificate program overseen by the National Restaurant Association.

Debbie Getridge, shift supervisor at the Battlefield Market in Sharpsburg, said she is glad there are regulations in place to keep food safe in restaurants.

If the regulations didn't exist, people would be serving food from "cockroach-infested" eateries, Getridge said.

Battleview Market is a popular eating spot known for its hamburgers and home-cooked food like fresh fried chicken. Getridge said tourists are often directed to the market from the visitors center next door at Antietam National Battlefield.

She said the market works hard on food safety and recently discarded two cases of chicken from a supplier because it was too old.

"I think it's fair," Heather Shin said of the health department's restaurant inspection process.

Shin owns Public Square Cafe, which Shin said is a bustling place at 8:30 a.m., with college students coming in for her menu of breakfast items like bagels, egg and cheese creations and smoothies.

In addition to her specialty sandwiches including portabella and Italian cold cut, Shin said she also roasts vegetables in an oven for vegetarian dishes. She said she does not hold the vegetarian dishes over a day at her moderate-risk eatery at Potomac and Washington streets because they lose their quality.

Shin said health department inspectors have viewed her vegetable roasting process and have not raised any objections.

Krista Dunahugh, manager of Schmankerl Stube Bavarian Restaurant at 58 S. Potomac St., said her restaurant staff has always had a good rapport with health department inspectors. Dunahugh said the health department conducts a full inspection of the German-style restaurant about once a year.

Then inspectors will do quick "stop-ins" to check issues like temperature settings in food operations, Dunahugh.

"They don't go out of their way to give you a hard time," said Dunahugh, who has been at Schmankerl Stube for 28 years. "I don't know of anyone who has had an unfair dealing with them."


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