There's nothing like a few e. coli scares and produce recalls to make us pay attention to food-borne illnesses. I recently took some of my concerns to Sherry LaBelle, associate division director of Environmental Health Services, Macomb County Health Department.
Metro Times: I am told that if you get food poisoning, the symptoms aren't likely to surface for a while. When people say that they just got food poisoning at some restaurant at lunch, it probably occurred at dinner last night,
Sherry LaBelle: That's somewhat correct. Different organisms, depending on what caused your illness, have different incubation periods. Some of them have short incubation periods, which could be two to four hours. Some have long incubation periods, probably the longest being hepatitis A because it could be 90 days before you come down with symptoms. We do have that problem constantly. People call in and say that they got ill at the last meal. We call it the last-meal bias. That's why we always get a 72-hour meal history when we interview people.
MT: So how does the restaurant inspection program work? Can we tap into it to make dining decisions?
LaBelle: On our site, macombcountymi.gov/publichealth, click on the A-Z index, then on restaurant inspections, then select the zip code of the restaurant whose report you want to see. If you don't know the zip code, there's a map of the area by zip code. If you know which one it is, enter it and you will be able to get an alphabetical listing of the restaurants there. Select the restaurant of interest to you. When it appears, there will be a brief description of the violation and a code number that can be referenced for a more detailed explanation. There is also a notation indicating whether it has been corrected.
MT: Let's talk about the difference, from the Health Department's perspective, between messy and dirty. Shortly after a dinner rush, a kitchen may be a mess, but in another hour it may be spotless. If you inspect a restaurant that is messy, does that impact the establishment's score?
LaBelle: When we do restaurant inspections, we are looking for long-term problems, something that's been there for a while. The immediate mess from the lunch-hour rush is not a problem versus the long-term buildup of dirt and debris under equipment and counters or in corners, where you can tell that proper cleaning is not a habit. That is the distinction.
MT: Can you give examples of specific restaurants that have been closed by your department and tell me why?
LaBelle: I won't mention any names, but I will tell you that the main cause for shutting down an establishment is rodent mice infestation or insects. If you're not on top of getting rid of them, it gets out of hand.
MT: Are there any types of restaurants that are prone to problems with the Health Department?
LaBelle: No. It's across the board. It really hinges on the manager and the owner. How much do they care and how much are they hands-on involved? That applies to chains and independent restaurants.
MT: What are the most glaring conditions that alert you to problems?
LaBelle: The serious things that we are looking for, what we call the critical violations, are the things that are most likely to cause illness: not holding hot foods at high enough temperatures or keeping cold foods cold enough. Foods cannot be kept at room temperature for long periods of time. Food must be cooked to the proper temperature, which will kill dangerous bacteria. Personal hygiene issues such as hand washing, not working in clean clothing those are the critical things that we are looking for, the most important.
MT: I heard a story about two restaurant employees who were using the bathroom. When the chef was leaving, the other worker pointed out the written reminder "All employees must wash their hands before returning to work." The chef responded, "I'm not going back to work. I'm going out to lunch."
LaBelle: [Chuckles.] The hardest part of our job is changing someone's behavior.
MT: How much does the use of food-handler gloves help sanitation? I recently saw a pizza-maker out in the parking lot with his gloves on smoking a cigarette. At least he wasn't in the bathroom.
LaBelle: We realize that some glove abuse does occur. But how many people are actually going to go into the restroom and keep the gloves on?
MT: Is there any way for us to gain a sense of the sanitation at a restaurant?
LaBelle: Many restaurants spend a lot of money and put a lot of effort into the dining room to create a pleasant dining experience. This may not necessarily reflect what's going on in the kitchen. A good clue is if you go into the restroom, a public area, and it's not clean and needs attention: Personally, I would question what's going on in the kitchen. It's not 100 percent, but often if the restrooms need a lot of attention, the kitchen needs attention too.Jeff Broder does this twice-monthly food interview for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org