Dining experiences should be remembered for safe, delicious food rather than the illness outbreaks we so often hear about in the news. When eating out, Whatcom County diners select from a diverse menu of more than 1,200 permanent food establishments and hundreds more temporary food events held each year. Even with all of those choices there is little need to worry about whether or not the food is safe. It is a big job, but the Whatcom County Health Department is watching the kitchen. Our FDA-certified food inspectors are often invisible to the public. They work quietly with food service operators to build a foundation of safe food handling and to teach them how to maintain safe kitchens, especially when we are not there.
Why should you care? Food borne illness is more common than you may think. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that up to 48 million people suffer from food borne illness every year. Most cases go unreported because even though the experience is extremely unpleasant, symptoms generally resolve without medical care. However, each year food borne illness does result in 128,000 hospital visits and 3,000 deaths.
Whatcom County Health Department staff completed over 1,400 unannounced food inspections in 2013. Establishments with complicated food menus are inspected more frequently than places with simpler menus such as espresso stands. Complex food preparation provides greater opportunity for contamination with bacteria and viruses. When serious violations are found, immediate correction is required. Corrective action may be as simple as adjusting the temperature of a refrigerator or it may require food destruction or facility closure.
So, how are our food establishments doing in Whatcom County? On one end of the spectrum, in 2013, less than 2 percent of our inspections resulted in closure. On the other end of the spectrum, about 4 percent of our facilities received a Silver Platter Award for excellent inspection results. Most facilities fall somewhere in-between. We noted at least one serious food handling error at about 20 percent of the establishments inspected. Common serious errors include failing to wash hands properly, improper food holding temperatures, and foods obtained from unapproved sources. About half of the establishments had at least one food handling error categorized as less serious. These include violations not likely to result in serious illness such as improper equipment or lighting, or cleanliness issues in non-food preparation areas.
Unsafe food doesn't always look bad, smell bad, or taste bad so we have to look deeper. When we inspect we are chiefly concerned with whether the food is being handled safely at the facility. We make sure that food workers show no symptoms of illness and that they wash their hands often to prevent food contamination. Food supplies and ingredients are checked to make sure they are from approved sources. Workers are observed to ensure that they always use utensils or gloves to eliminate bare hand contact with ready-to-eat food. We check temperatures to make sure meat is thoroughly cooked and foods are held at safe temperatures. Finally, we check records to determine if food storage, preparation and service areas are cleaned and sanitized on a regular basis.
Our food inspectors do a great job educating and build strong working relationships with restaurant owners. That doesn't stop them, however, from enforcing regulations when violations are found. We strive to do more and to do better when it comes to food safety. We are reviewing our permit fee structure and plan to propose risk-based fees during the next budget cycle. The new fee structure will allow us to put an even greater emphasis on complex facilities where safe food handling is critical.
When you dine out, rest assured that our public health messages have been heard by food workers in every kitchen. When you enjoy a special treat at a fair or festival, we are there. When you shop for groceries, we are there. When your kids eat at schools or summer camps, we are there. You will know that our efforts are successful when nothing happens. When it comes to illness prevention, no news really is good news.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Wolpers is environmental health manager at the Whatcom County Health Department.