Restaurant inspectors find approach works; Demerit system gives way to cooperation, education


Restaurant inspections have changed over the past decade: Gone are gruff inspectors ticking off demerits based on a 100-point scale.

Today's inspections are about cooperation. No longer thorns in the side of restaurant operators, inspectors are seen as partners looking out for the public welfare.

"We've gone from irritant to teammate," said Anne Arundel County registered sanitarian Charlie Stinchcomb.

An inspector for 26 years, Stinchcomb thinks the newer approach the county has used for several years, a method developed by Pillsbury Corp. for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the 1960s, is a better way to check on the sanitary practices of area restaurants.

"I use my expertise, and encourage operators to share theirs, so we can solve potential or existing problems," Stinchcomb said.

Last week during an inspection at Harry Browne's on State Circle in Annapolis, Stinchcomb learned about a simple filtration system installed in a walk-in refrigerator that reduced the humidity and temperature. Owner Rusty Romo raved about the system and gave Stinchcomb the telephone number of the company, which the inspector will pass on to other res- taurant owners.

Under the old inspection system, when an inspector entered a restaurant there would be a mad scramble in the kitchen while someone stalled the inspector. Restaurant employees would check refrigerators for thermometers, put chicken away, clean the can opener -- all items worth demerits under the old system.

Passing the test is no longer considered the most important thing. With the old system, "the can opener would be warm, right out of the dishwasher," Stinchcomb recalled. "But, if they got a 92 on the inspection, they thought they had done well. But they hadn't learned anything. The can opener could be filthy until the next inspection."

"I am not God, and I do not expect these places to be perfect," he said. "You have to take the time to talk to people, tell them what you are doing, for them to learn."

Vincent Quinlan, owner of Castle Bay on Main Street in Annapolis, prefers the new approach. "The education is a plus, it keeps us on our feet and the customer knows the place is good and clean," he said.

Quinlan's partner, Bill Delaney, finds inspectors are more like teachers in sanitary restaurant procedure. He says continuing to educate is important because many restaurant workers change jobs often.

Under the system Pillsbury developed, called Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point, inspectors try to predict critical points at which contamination might occur.

"We want to monitor the operation from when the food comes in the back door to when it goes out to the customer," Stinchcomb said.

Inspectors use manuals that contain all recipes on the menu to check for sanitary procedures. A chicken salad recipe might be checked to see how cooked chicken is cooled before it is combined with other ingredients. Is the meat completely cool, or is the salad made while the chicken is still warm, risking bacterial growth?

Food should be held below 45 or above 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Inspectors and cooks use pocket thermometers to check temperatures.

Usually, that is.

Stinchcomb recalls going into an establishment, since closed, and finding chicken and beef held for sandwiches at 120 degrees. He asked the owner to get his thermometer so they could check the food together. The owner disappeared for several minutes before returning "with a wall thermometer in the shape of a peacock!" he said. "That was a scary one."

Anne Arundel County inspects restaurants at least twice a year. Eateries that prepare raw foods, then cool, store and reheat them for service, are checked three times.

There are two types of inspections: a thorough environmental check that covers everything from the trash bins out back and cracks in the ceiling to covered trash cans in the restrooms and mold in the soda gun holder; and a monitoring check which targets food temperatures and preparation.

Last year, county inspectors temporarily shut down 43 food service facilities, mostly because of fires, sewage overflows or water problems. Inspectors visit between 100 and 120 restaurants during every two weeks.

Stinchcomb says he averages two or three inspections daily.

Checking complaints about restaurants and cafeterias is much like detective work, Stinchcomb said. If a diner calls complaining of an intestinal disturbance, Health Department inspectors take a history of what the person ate the previous three days.

"Well, when did you eat there?" Stinchcomb might ask.

"Yesterday at 6."

"When did you get sick?"

"Around 7." Stinchcomb then knows the restaurant is not responsible, because the onset for food-borne illness is usually three to six hours.

After questioning, he may discover the person ate leftovers for lunch. Stinchcomb digs further and discovers the person left a restaurant two nights earlier with leftovers and left the food in the car for three hours before putting it in the refrigerator.

"That's like buying chicken at the grocery store and leaving it in the car for four hours. You take your life in your own hands," Stinchcomb said.

Large outbreaks are more difficult to figure out.

Stinchcomb recalls a wedding banquet at which 30 or 40 people got sick. He ruled out a quick diagnosis when he found out that the victims ate different dishes. The department took stool samples from employees but found no signs of infectious disease.

After several days and more interviews, he determined that the person who made the salads had washed lettuce in a sink that had not been sanitized after crab soup splashed in it.

"It was one of the cleanest places I had ever worked with. But that was my best guess as to what happened -- and sometimes your best guess is all you can offer," Stinchcomb said.

Pub Date: 1/31/99

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