Turning up the heat

The Baltimore Sun

The nearly weeklong closing of an Ellicott City supermarket for health code violations recently is not the norm in Howard County. But local health officials plan to become more aggressive against chronic but less egregious offenders, they said.

First to feel the heat could be Hunan Manor, a popular east Columbia restaurant that has a two-year history of repeated problems during inspections -- from the presence of roaches and mice to improperly handled and stored food.

"These problems [at Hunan] continue to show up on a regular basis. We need to do more about it," said Burt Nixon, acting director of the Health Department's Bureau of Environmental Health.

Hunan is an example of what one former county inspector called a lax attitude toward health code enforcement by county authorities -- a charge they deny.

Although inspected 15 times since January 2006, Hunan has never been ordered closed because, unlike the owners of Lotte Plaza supermarket, the restaurant's operators have cooperated with county health inspectors and have a pest exterminator come twice weekly, officials said. Still, the problems are continuing and serious, officials said.

Robert S. Foo, Hunan's general manager, acknowledged the problems and said he is trying to correct them. The restaurant has been in business on Deepage Drive, off Snowden River Parkway, for nearly 18 years, Foo said.

The situation at Lotte Plaza supermarket was different, county officials said.

"We needed to have them closed because the problems were pervasive," county food program supervisor Trudy Hyde said about Lotte Plaza supermarket, which was closed Aug. 7 and not allowed to reopen until Aug. 13. County officials said the closing was prompted by a wide range of serious problems that the market's owners had ignored.

Fred Tancordo, a former county health inspector who has been writing to county officials for months urging more stringent action, believes health authorities have been generally too lax.

In a letter to County Executive Ken Ulman in January, Tancordo wrote that the Health Department's food protection division "has created a regulatory environment that favors the food establishments of Howard County. This on-going practice is putting the citizens of Howard County at risk for food-borne illness and diseases." He called for an outside audit of food-inspection services.

"It's a lack of enforcement -- a Band-Aid approach," Tancordo said, describing Hunan's history of violations followed by corrections, followed by more, similar violations.

Nixon and Hyde denied favoring food businesses, pointing to standardized state food-inspection procedures and inspection forms. Tancordo, an employee from late 2005 to mid-2006, worked for the county for about nine months, Nixon said.

"What we're seeing is a willingness in the case of Hunan [management]. We're not seeing problems escalate and expand," Nixon said.

He added, however, that "despite their efforts and generally good intentions, they are still falling short."

Hyde said that large-volume food businesses in older [more than 10 years] buildings -- such as Hunan -- often have a harder time avoiding health violations because of the large amount of food being prepared.

"The reason we have so many inspections [at Hunan] is that we tend to monitor it closely," Hyde said.

"We've questioned the pest-control company. They [Hunan] don't have an infestation. They have a presence," said Hyde, who supervises the county's six inspectors.

Nixon, a 22-year employee who has been acting bureau director since May, said high turnover among inspectors also has been a problem.

Hyde and Nixon said they have had trouble retaining trained inspectors, but this month achieved full staffing and are looking at tighter enforcement of food violations. Starting July 1, food inspections have been available on the Health Department's Web site.

Howard's six inspectors are responsible for 1,020 restaurants and food outlets. Last year, the county closed 23 establishments, though all but four reopened the same day. Famous Wok, a restaurant in food court of The Mall in Columbia, was closed for two days in July 2006 for a roach infestation.

Most places forced to close encountered problems beyond their control, Hyde and Nixon said, such as the loss of water.

This year, nine businesses have been closed, including Lotte Plaza supermarket and Bangkok Delight on Centre Park Drive, which was damaged by a fire Aug. 15.

Foo said Hunan can clean up without closing, though he sympathized with customers.

"I wouldn't like to go to a place where there's a lot of complaints of roaches and mice," he said. "It would make me uncomfortable."

But Foo said the restaurant's management welcomes scrutiny.

"We're trying to hire a professional contractor to go through the building," Foo said, to repair holes and cracks that allow insects and rodents to enter. In addition, he said, employees are being taught more about the need for cleanliness, and suppliers about the need to inspect food before delivery to keep roaches out.

"We have to educate our staff to clean up the messes as soon as you are done," Foo said.

Many restaurants, including Hunan, have sometimes corrected inspection violations that could force immediate closure by immediately discarding food left out or not cooked, stored or refrigerated properly.

During a county inspection March 13, for example, Hunan employees threw out a tray of egg rolls that was not heated to proper temperatures. A bowl of raw eggs also was discarded because the eggs had been pooled together at room temperature.

Operators typically have up to 30 days to correct less critical violations. The county can also call operators in for a conference or impose daily fines for uncorrected problems.


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