Restaurant inspections check for problems, with a goal of zero

Education, prevention of food-borne illnesses focus of public health officials

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter



Top violations

These are the most common high-risk and low-risk categories where violations were recorded by Clark County Public Health officials during restaurant inspections in 2013. A total of 418 is possible; a zero is a perfect score.

High-risk violations:

• Current food worker cards (5 points) — 463 violations.

• Proper cold holding, 42-45 degrees (5 points) — 318 violations.

• Proper cold holding, above 45 degrees (10 points) — 315 violations.

• Adequate hand-washing facilities (10 points) — 201 violations.

• Proper hot holding, 130 to 134 degrees (5 points) — 122 violations.

Low-risk violations:

• Wiping cloths properly used/stored (5 points) — 338 violations.

• Potential food contamination prevented (5 points) — 299 violations.

• Food-contact surfaces maintained/cleaned/sanitized (5 points) — 222 violations.

• Facilities properly installed/maintained/cleaned (2 points) — 195 violations.

• Ware-washing facilities properly installed/maintained/used (5 points) — 147 violations.

Did you know?

• Clark County Public Health publishes all restaurant inspection scores, with the types of violations recorded during the visit, at

• The Columbian publishes recent inspection scores every Friday in the Weekend section.

Every year, Clark County Public Health officials perform more than 3,000 routine restaurant inspections.

Rarely, those inspections reveal significant problems that cause health officials to immediately shut down businesses. While the closures garner plenty of public attention, most restaurant inspections are uneventful. Health officials typically find only minor problems or catch risky behavior before it leads to a food-borne illness outbreak.

"The focus isn't 'gotcha!'" said Gary Bickett, public health program manager. "We want to educate and prevent food-borne illness."

Health officials perform unannounced inspections one to three times per year at each of the more than 1,700 food service operations in Clark County. Out of more than 3,000 annual inspections, health officials close only two or three restaurants each year for food safety violations, Bickett said.

The number of unannounced inspections at a restaurant varies depending on the complexity of the menu. Full-menu restaurants and establishments that handle raw protein are inspected three times a year. Sandwich shops that handle purchased, precooked proteins are subject to two inspections. And espresso stands or yogurt shops that use prepackaged foods and require little preparation are inspected only once a year.

When food safety specialists inspect establishments, they're looking for violations that could put the public at risk for illness or injury, Bickett said. Most food-borne illnesses are caused by improper hand washing, bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat foods and ill food workers, he said.

The inspectors use a scoring system that assigns points, ranging from 2 to 25, for violations. The number of points each violation receives is based on the risk it poses.

For example, holding hot foods at a temperature lower than 130 degrees — in the temperature "danger zone" of 41 to 135 degrees — is a 25-point violation. An employee not wearing gloves, which prevent bare hands from touching ready-to-eat foods, is also a 25-point violation.

Those are actions that place the public at high risk of food-borne illness.

Low-risk violations include not having wiping cloths properly stored (5-point violation) and the restaurant not having its health department-issued permit displayed (2-point violation).

A score of zero — no points assessed for violations — is a perfect score. Restaurants that receive 35 or more high-risk points during an inspection are subject to an unannounced follow-up inspection within 30 days. If an establishment receives 60 or more high-risk points or a total of 100 points during one inspection, health officials immediately shut down the restaurant until the violations are corrected, Bickett said.

Sometimes the closures last a few hours. Sometimes they last for several days, he said.

"It's rare to have to come to a closure," said Joan Lacey, a food safety specialist.

Routine inspection

In late January, it was Philly Bilmos Cheesesteaks owner Michael Bitter's turn to get a visit from the health department.

Lacey walked into the East Vancouver restaurant, which specializes in Philadelphia-style steak sandwiches and Italian subs, in the early afternoon. As a couple of customers ate their meals, Lacey announced herself and headed to the sink to wash her hands before beginning her inspection.

Bitter showed Lacey current food worker cards for all of his employees and directed her toward the restaurant's posted license. Lacey checked the concentration of the restaurant's sanitation buckets, making sure they contained the appropriate amount of bleach.

Then, she headed for the food.

Lacey stuck a digital thermometer into a pot containing meatballs and another full of Coney sauce. Both food items were well above the 135-degree minimum temperature required for hot foods.

At the food prep station, Lacey checked the temperatures of the cold foods being stored until they topped sandwiches. The chopped lettuce came in at 40.7 degrees, just below the 41-degree minimum for cold foods. A new requirement mandates chopped leafy greens and tomatoes be kept below 41 degrees as a result of recent illness outbreaks with the foods, Lacey said.

The thinly sliced beef Bitter uses for his signature Philly cheesesteaks is kept frozen. Lacey recorded the meat at 16 degrees, well below the minimum. The temperatures of the marinara and Coney sauces in the refrigerator also checked out as safe.

After checking food temperatures, Lacey gave the storage area a look. She made sure dry foods were properly labeled and all containers were at least 6 inches off the ground. The dishwasher appeared to be working properly and a hot dog headed to a customer was served at the appropriate temperature.

Lacey wrapped up her 30-minute visit and went over her findings with Bitter. The restaurant received a perfect score. Because Bitter's restaurant uses raw beef, Lacey visits the establishment three times a year.

While most, like Bitter, welcome the inspections, some workers dread seeing the food safety specialists walk through the doors. If inspectors arrive during an especially busy service time, for example, they may get a few eye rolls and sighs, Lacey said.

But for the most part, workers don't seem anxious or nervous about the presence of health officials. Bickett hopes that's because health officials have done their job to educate workers.

"Our goal is food safety," he said. "We want them to succeed."