Next time you enjoy a meal in a restaurant, don’t just compliment the chef. You might also want to thank the county Health Department inspector who pokes around in the kitchen to make sure diners stay safe from nasty food borne illness.
John Luke, director of food protection with the state Department of Health, estimates there are about 90 employees who conduct food inspections. “However, food inspections aren’t their only duty,” he said. The last time Luke checked the numbers, “they probably spent about 40 percent of their time on food inspections.”
On any given day, there are 13,700 restaurants serving paying customers in the state and they all are required to have a food permit. Catering facilities also are subject to inspections.
Exceptions are charitable, non profit organizations and private schools.
“Ideally it would be nice to have more inspectors so they could spend more time with educating the facilities,” Luke said. Inspectors point out risk factors, potential problems and preventive measures to managers and staff.
Inspectors are looking at five major risk factors most likely to cause food borne illness: Improper holding temperatures of cooked food, inadequate cooking, contaminated equipment, unapproved food sources and personal hygiene.
Luke said the most common problems involve food temperatures, inadequate cooking and hygiene. Those infractions, though troublesome, can easily be fixed, he said.
So those “wash your hands” signs in restrooms are there for a reason.
Luke said in general Mississippi restaurants are safe. “For the most part, facilities do a good job of self regulation,” he said.
Restaurant owners and caterers can expect inspections from one to four times a year at a minimum but they shouldn’t expect any notice. “Generally inspections are unannounced,” Luke said.
The number of inspections depends on the risk level at the food facility. Risk level 1 is the lowest risk. Risk level 4 includes facilities that do a large volume of food preparation involving cooking, cooling, reheating and food processing.
The food permit cost goes up with the risk level. Risk 1 permits are $30 a year, Risk 4 permits are $200.
The length of an inspection depends on how large the facility is and the time of day. “For instance, Luke said, “a snow cone stand would take less than half an hour, whereas a full blown restaurant that does a huge volume of food may take a few hours to do.”
Luke said some of the largest and most complex restaurants to inspect are in casinos “since they are 24-hour operations with a huge volume of food and a lot of different foods.”
If problems found are serious enough the Health Department can shut a kitchen down. “It does happen but not very often,” Luke said. “Usually it is the very last step.”
More often than not, the problems are corrected fairly quickly, he said. “Many times things can be fixed within a 24-hour period.”
Restaurateurs and managers react in a positive way to the inspections, Luke said, and there is a good overall working relationship with the restaurants.
Most inspections are done by one person but occasionally there may be an experienced inspector accompanied by one in training.
It takes about a year for a new inspector to gain a good general knowledge of what to look for, he said, and training is ongoing. “Every inspector in the state is required to have continuing education hours. Also every three years everyone is re-standardized by the central office staff.”
The rules are updated regularly, as well. Mississippi subscribes to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s food code as its regulations. The food code is updated every four years and there is a supplement every other year. “So regulations are constantly changing in order to keep up with the new technology,” Luke said.
So what type of equipment does an inspector take on the job?
It’s pretty basic: A copy of the regulations for reference, at least one thermometer for checking food temperature, a flashlight to check dark corners or behind equipment and sanitizing wipes to clean the thermometers. “We don’t want to be the one causing cross contamination,” said Luke.
If you see an unsafe condition in a restaurant, contact the county Health Department where the restaurant is located. Then the Health Department will follow up on the complaint.
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