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Neglecting restaurant inspection

By David Hunt and Bob Stiles The Tribune-Review,
Sunday, Aug. 27, 2006
 

At least six of Jeannette's 32 bars and restaurants have been deemed clean enough to serve food and drinks this year -- even though an inspector didn't set foot in any of them.

The cash-strapped city lost its health inspector last September. City Clerk Ron Dinsmore said in July that he was forced to rubber-stamp the licenses for the six businesses so they could meet state liquor-license requirements and stay open.

"I'm concerned because there are some we've had problems with, but most we haven't. Most of them are very good," he said. "I extended them only because of the fact that they needed them extended."

Six of 67 counties in Pennsylvania handle restaurant inspections through county health departments, but Westmoreland isn't one of them. County officials say they aren't interested in developing a program to monitor health conditions in the county's more than 1,500 restaurants even if other programs aren't working.

"We're not looking to expand the mission of county government. We've got enough on our plate, enough financial challenges already," said Commissioner Chairman Tom Balya.

"No one has even approached us with the issue. I don't know that it's reached some type of crisis stage. I don't know that the role of county government is to create an entire agency because there's a municipality with a problem," Balya said.

Restaurant owners in Jeannette said they would welcome true inspections every year.

"I think it's good because I eat out a lot," said Terry Woloshun, owner of Johnny's Wife's Place. "I'd want to be comfortable about it. It gives you peace of mind. I think they should have someone inspect."

Jeannette's problem isn't unique. Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner released a report last November claiming the state's lax oversight of restaurant inspections presents a public health risk.

The state Agriculture Department inspects all restaurants that are not covered by local programs in about 200 municipalities -- including Jeannette -- or by county health departments.

Wagner's special-performance audit found that about 4,000 of the state's 17,597 restaurants, bars and retail stores serving food and drinks had not been inspected for two years or more.

One eatery had its license renewed for six years without an inspection, the audit showed.

"The whole area of licensing and inspection does not have the priority it should have in the Department of Agriculture," Wagner said in an interview. "They fell behind and did not have the resources to catch up. ... One of the problems (is that) the number of restaurants increased while the number of inspectors decreased."

The state has about 60 inspectors, known as sanitarians, and seven supervisors to inspect all the restaurants not done by municipalities or counties -- about 48,828 food-handling businesses, according to the audit.

Wagner's audit caught the attention of state Rep. Jennifer L. Mann, D-Allentown, who is drafting legislation to strengthen the requirements for restaurant inspections handled by the Agriculture Department.

"There's going to be a lot of facets to it," said Mann's chief of staff, Peter Schweyer. "I'm hoping it will be ready when we go back in September."

Sheri Morris, food program manager for the Agriculture Department's inspection program, said the Legislature needs to update its food handling law. The Public Eating and Drinking Place Law was enacted in 1945.

Local control

Les Harvey, Greensburg's director for buildings, fire and code enforcement, said Westmoreland County could benefit from a health department, but only if it assumes more responsibilities than just restaurant inspections.

"It depends on how you define health department. If it's (vaccination) shots to licensing, I think that would be a real advantage to the entire county," he said. "I'm sure it really comes down to bucks. I'm sure it would be an exorbitant amount of money to set this up.

"But I think as the years go on and these incidents go on, like 9/11, I think we may see more of this happening. But I think you may be looking more at regionalization" because of costs, Harvey said.

Allegheny, Bucks, Chester, Erie, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties each has its own health department. Andrew J. Glass, executive director of Erie's department, said his agency works with the restaurants and goes to the media with inspection results. The process, he said, keeps restaurants clean.

"You've got somebody in the county that's an expert. You're almost automatically and immediately upping the education," Glass said.

Voters in the northwestern Pennsylvania county established the health department through a 1955 referendum.

The department has a $6.7 million annual budget, with $1.3 million devoted to the environmental health program, which oversees restaurant inspections, food safety and several other services.

Allegheny County Health Department spokesman Guillermo Cole said that food inspection program costs $1.6 million each year, offset by $1.1 million in revenue for licenses and related fees.

"It's not totally self-supporting, but it does bring in some money," Cole said.

Bucks County has an annual budget of $429.5 million, with $12.66 million set aside for the health department. Of that, $750,000 covers expenses for restaurant inspections, said county spokesman Chris Edwards.

Wagner said he thinks there are ways to boost the state staff and make timely inspections. Increasing license fees and fine schedules would provide additional revenue, he said.

"If the Department of Agriculture is true to its mission, they will use this report as a blueprint," he said, adding that a follow-up investigation is planned. "Our report is not judgmental of the restaurants. ... We would like this to be a preventative report to correct problems before they occur."

Morris said her agency took several steps to try to rectify problems discovered in Wagner's audit. Among them are a revised inspection checklist and a revamped computer system that shows the public how businesses fared during initial or yearly inspections.

"I believe we're on the right path," Morris said.

She declined to address whether her department had enough inspectors.

The Agriculture Department has done about 15,000 inspections this year, most involving restaurants, Morris said.

Safety concerns

Patrick Conway, chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association, said customers do not have to worry if an annual inspection isn't done. More problems related to food occur in homes, where about two-thirds of all meals are served, he said.

"I don't think consumers should be concerned. A consumer in a restaurant is far safer there than at home," Conway said.

But he urged Jeannette and other communities to annually inspect its eateries.

"Restaurants want to be inspected because restaurants want the people to know they are safe and clean," he said.

The names of the Jeannette businesses that have been inspected or remain to be inspected were illegibly scribbled on a yellow legal tablet at city hall.

That's the official record. Reports involving these and earlier inspections are not available.

Dinsmore, who doubles as secretary of Jeannette's health board, said the city wants to find one person qualified to handle zoning, property maintenance and health inspections. It's hard to do, he said.

In addition to extending the licenses of six businesses so they could renew their liquor licenses, Dinsmore said, he also inspected six other businesses, following a form used by state sanitarians. The state inspected three other restaurants at his request, Dinsmore said.

Seven more businesses should have been inspected but weren't, according to Dinsmore. The remaining businesses in the city of about 10,000 people are due for inspections later this year, he said. The license costs each business $25.

Dinsmore said he doesn't believe he or anyone else doing inspections in a municipality needs to be certified.

Not true, said Troy Thompson, state Health Department spokesman.

Inspectors must pass the health and sanitary officer examination, Thompson said. But if they don't take or pass that test, the state can't make them comply.

"There are no provisions for penalties in the law," Thompson explained.

The Agriculture Department's Morris said a state sanitarian typically has a four-year college degree and two years of experience in food inspection.

Morris said inspectors focus on 27 key areas, called "food-borne risk factors," determined by the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Morris said if problems are found, suggestions are made about how to correct the flaws. Another inspection immediately follows.

"It's basically up to the sanitarian and his supervisor to decide the course of action," Morris said. "You kind of have to consider what the violation was."

An "imminent health hazard," such as sewage backing up into a kitchen, can immediately close a business, she said.

Annual check

Larry Nestico, owner of The Nest on Clay Avenue in Jeannette, said his restaurant was inspected by a city inspector about a year ago and is due for another soon. Woloshun, the owner of Johnny's Wife's Place, said his business on Harrison Avenue scored a 98 out of a possible 100 when it was last inspected by the city, in June 2005.

Both Nestico and Woloshun said they want the city to hire a qualified inspector. Woloshun suggested that maybe city businesses should be inspected by the state, using unannounced reviews. A few years back, business owners knew when the inspections were to occur, Woloshun said.

"In most cases, you probably have a lot of restaurants that do a great job, but you always have some that want to slip through the cracks," Nestico said.

Chris Dobernick, who inspects eating places for Greensburg, said he closed one business for about 10 days last summer because refrigerators with malfunctioning seals couldn't keep food at proper temperatures during extremely hot weather.

A check of Greensburg inspection reports showed that another business received a "critical notice violation" this year after Dobernick said he found two cockroaches. Dobernick said he made the business contract with an exterminator for regular spraying in order to remain open.

Starting July 1, 2004, all establishments in the state that serve food were required to have an employee certified in proper handling of food. To be certified, a person must attend a 15-hour class and pass a state certification test.

Agriculture Department spokesman Chris Ryder said more than 38,000 people have passed the course.

Erik Rector, owner of the recently opened South Beach off Route 30 in Irwin, said he wants to see his and other restaurants inspected. Rector and his general manager both passed the food handling course and South Beach was inspected by the state before opening this past spring.

"I can't keep my eyes on everything in the building all the time," Rector said. "It's kind of like a balance and check on the restaurant for me."

Tracing source of illness can be difficult

It's difficult to pinpoint how many cases of food-borne illness occur because of improper food handling.

"People around here call it the stomach flu, with vomiting, diarrhea. Rarely is it anything more than a day's worth of having the stomach flu," said Dr. Bob Whipkey, emergency room director for the three Excela Health System hospitals, Westmoreland in Greensburg, Frick in Mt. Pleasant, and Latrobe.

"There's really nothing that you can do that's a quick test for a toxin. The vast, vast majority of people -- 99 percent -- get better without any treatment. So why do a test?" Whipkey said.

Statistics from the Pittsburgh Poison Center show few food poisoning inquiries from Westmoreland County -- 22 dating back to January 2004.

"It's very, very difficult to diagnose it," community education director Rita Mrvos said. "Short of seeing a physician and getting a stool culture, there's no way to tell. But most of the time, by the time the stool culture comes back, the person feels better, and who cares."

The state Department of Health keeps records on confirmed cases of common food-borne infections such as campylobacter and salmonella, but department spokeswoman Larissa Bedrick said the numbers can't necessarily be chalked up to food poisoning because the reports are generally made without investigating the source.

Greensburg attorney Jon M. Lewis said he's traced an outbreak of salmonella poisoning to a wedding reception in Mt. Pleasant Township two years ago. So far, he's filed five of 10 lawsuits he said are in store for Falbo's Italian Restaurant, of Latrobe, which catered the party.

"Some people were deathly ill. Some still have problems," Lewis said.

One of the plaintiffs, Kathleen Greece, of Greensburg, missed 36 days of work because she was so sick, according to court papers. Greece declined to be interviewed for this story.

Tom Smith, the Greensburg attorney representing Falbo's, said a state Department of Agriculture investigation shortly after the September 2004 reception determined that the strain of salmonella came from eggs.

"They determined that the likely culprit was a baked good, the wedding cake or the cookies, none of which were provided by Falbo's," Smith said.

No matter what caused the wedding guests to get sick, both attorneys agree on one thing: Closer oversight of restaurant inspection programs might not have changed anything.

"I don't think it would have prevented it because the restaurant isn't responsible," Smith said.

"I don't know if it would help," Lewis said. "It could make a difference, but unless there's a test one could provide before serving food, I think it's impossible to prevent all instances of food-borne illness."

Whipkey said a local program would not necessarily mean better oversight.

"Regardless of who does the inspecting, it depends on the quality of inspecting. It should be consistent and without warning," he said. "As long as there is a good inspection for the appropriate things to avoid food-borne illness, that would be adequate."

Mrvos said a local program won't provide protection beyond the local area.

"There's nothing to say they actually bought that food and ate it in Westmoreland County," she said. "People could be down here (in Pittsburgh) at a baseball game, eat something and get sick and show up in Westmoreland ER."

Additional Information:

Ground rules

Here are some criteria from the Food Establishment Inspection Report used by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture:

Food-borne illness risk factors and public health interventions

  • Good hygienic practices by employees

  • Hands cleaned and properly washed

  • Food obtained from approved source

  • Food in good condition, safe and unadulterated

  • Food-contact surfaces are cleaned and sanitized

  • Proper cooking time and temperature

  • Proper reheating procedures

  • Proper hot holding temperatures

  • Proper cold holding temperatures

  • Proper date marking and disposition of food

  • Food separated and protected

  • Food properly labeled; original container

  • Water and ice from approved source

  • Variance obtained for specialized processing methods

  • Toxic substances properly identified, stored and used

Prevention of food contamination

  • Insects, rodents and animals not present; no unauthorized persons

  • Contamination prevented during prep, storage and display

  • Personal cleanliness

  • Wipe cloths properly used and stored

  • Washing fruits and vegetables

Proper use of utensils

  • Utensil, equipment and linens properly stored, dried and handled

  • Gloves properly used

Physical facilities

  • Hot and cold water available; adequate pressure

  • Plumbing installed; proper backflow devices

  • Sewage and waste water properly disposed

  • Toilet facilities properly constructed, supplied and clean

  • Garbage and refuse properly disposed; facilities maintained

  • Adequate ventilation and lighting; designated areas used

 

 
 


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