Health Department Preps Restaurants

by Sam Eifling  on Monday, Mar. 1, 2010 12:00 am  

The first things April Jones does when entering a restaurant kitchen are put on a hairnet and wash her hands.

"I want to send a message of personal hygiene," the environmental health specialist said as she scrubbed up in the kitchen hand-washing sink at Bobby's Country Cookin' in west Little Rock. As one of the inspectors charged with spot-checking Pulaski County's 1,800 food service establishments, Jones carries with her a pair of thermometers, a metal clipboard and the power to cite an establishment for violations large and small.

If that happens, though, the Arkansas Department of Health, under which each county health unit operates, seeks to remedy the violations swiftly, discreetly and with a respect for the restaurant's business that makes health inspections largely invisible in the state. There are no letter grades posted on restaurant walls, no percentage scores to announce an establishments' supposed safety rating. Health officials follow up on any complaints the department receives - anything from a hair or Band-Aid in a dish to cases of suspected food poisoning - but did not, in 2009, confirm a single instance of food-borne illness (defined as two or more illnesses from the same source) from a restaurant anywhere in the state.

Department officials credit that success to a willingness to work with, rather than against, restaurateurs. The Health Department's prime goals, said spokesman Ed Barham, are to "protect the public health and stay out of the way of business being done."

Jones recently guided an Arkansas Business reporter and photographer through Bobby's on a mock inspection. The visit wasn't a surprise to the restaurant; true inspections, which occur at least twice annually, are unannounced. "We're not trying to ambush anybody, but the rules as they are, it doesn't do anybody any good for her to say, 'I'll be there Thursday,'" Barham said. "We like to work with the owner. This is a snapshot of any one time."

The kitchen at Bobby's is immaculate on this visit. But this quick tour is a glimpse at what the state's 14,000 permit-holding restaurants, delis, bars and cafeterias undergo at least twice annually. And that figure doesn't count schools, which the state's local health sanitarians also inspect. The state pays roughly $3 million a year in salary and travel expenses for the 100 sanitarians who perform food safety inspections - only a quarter of whom do so exclusive of other environmental inspections such as septic systems and public swimming pools.

Jones' checklist of potential violations is a real appetite-suppressant. The health department looks for "proper eating, tasting, drinking or tobacco use," "no discharge from eyes, nose, and mouth" and the evocatively understated "personal cleanliness."

On her round at Bobby's, Jones put a thermometer in the Mexican chicken casserole, looked for potential for cross-contamination in the refrigerator and examined the inside of the icemaker for pink or black slime - evidence of mold. As she waited for a chemical dishwasher run to finish, to check the chlorine levels in the water, she mentioned that she was eyeing the floors, as well. "I'm looking for evidence of rodents and mice - critters in the building," she said.

Owner Terry Matyskiela said afterward that he appreciated Jones' approach on her rounds. "If you're doing something wrong, then let's be upfront about it and fix it," he said. "I think everything has gotten more politically correct. It's not the hard-nose days of 30 years ago."

No 'Police Mentality'

Funny that he chooses that figure, because that's how long Raymond Heaggans, the regional food specialist at the Arkansas Department of Health, has been in the business, too.

Heaggans said he's seen the culture of health inspections change from confrontational to cooperative, and, he believes, for the better.



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