Public health: Inspections help local food service

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Nothing puts an eatery on the shunning shortlist like a food poisoning outbreak  — think Chipotle in 2015 or Jack in the Box, circa 1993.

Following a widespread E. coli outbreak last fall, Chipotle recorded its first loss since it first went public a decade ago. The quick-service food brand’s value declined an estimated $8 billion from its peak in August, according to CNN Money. The Denver-based chain has since implemented “an industry-leading food safety program,” according to its co-CEO, Monty Moran, but the monetary damage left many wondering if the company would survive.

When it comes to food safety, many restaurateurs believe the best cure is an ounce of prevention. Pikes Peak Restaurant Association president and local restaurateur Joe Padilla, who owns Texas T-Bone Steakhouse on Academy Boulevard, said El Paso County Public Health is one of his industry’s most important allies.

“We co-exist. They’re here for us and they help us when we need them to keep us honest,” Padilla said. “They help people know what they don’t know.”

Cooking class

In 2015, El Paso County Public Health received 98 complaints for foodborne illnesses, a decline of 16 from the total number of reported cases from the previous year, according to Danielle Oller, public health information officer with the health department.

Tom Gonzales is division director at El Paso County Public Health, which conducts inspections of about 2,400 food-service establishments, food trucks, grocery stores and school cafeterias. The department also reviews building plans and redesigns for retail food establishments and oversees other facilities that could affect public health — tattoo parlors, public swimming pools and child-care facilities.

In recent months, Gonzales said there has been a large increase in reviews for new restaurants preparing to open in El Paso County. The reviews are an important step toward food safety, he said.

“We work with owners and operators to make sure they are set up properly,” he said, adding the health department reviewed 115 plans last year and is on track to exceed that number this year.

The public agency changed the way it conducts inspections last year, using a risk-based inspection model created in partnership with the Pikes Peak Restaurant Association.

Previously, the health department attempted to inspect all eligible facilities twice a year. Now, it identifies high-risk restaurants and inspects them more frequently, he said, including restaurants with plentiful animal proteins, unusual preparation practices or complex menus. Those establishments might be inspected anywhere from two to four times annually.

Gonzales said about 35 percent of all eateries are visited just once a year, while about 10 percent are inspected quarterly. Cottage industries are not subject to health inspections, he said, but Colorado State University Extension provides training to home-based businesses that want it.

“We’ll provide guidance, but aren’t required to inspect [cottage industries]. It’s in statute that they be non-regulated as long as they cook low-risk food,” Gonzales said. “There’s always risk when preparing food, so I think the most important thing is education — how to wash your hands and equipment, as well as temperature control.”

The county’s 16 environmental health specialists, Gonzales said, are there to assist businesses.

“The staff is always available for questions,” he said, “even if that means you have a new menu item and are looking for the best way to cool it or cook it.”

The health department and the restaurant association offer ongoing basic food safety classes, a perk Padilla said he often uses at his restaurant.

“We haven’t offered a class with less than 45 or 50 people,” Padilla said. He sent his entire staff, including waitstaff, to a session about six months ago.

Keep cool

According to Gonzales, his department receives about 200 food establishment-related complaints a year — the most common violation is improper refrigeration.

“Food has to be held, at most, at 41 degrees Fahrenheit to limit listeria,” he said. “The second-most common violation is lack of soap and paper towels at hand-washing sinks.”

The department notes critical violations, which can directly lead to foodborne illness. Follow-up inspections are conducted to make sure problems are fixed after critical violations.

“If it still exists, we’ll first issue a notice of noncompliance,” he said. “If we see the violation twice, we’ll do a second follow up.”

If the establishment is still not up to legal standards, the department issues a civil penalty, which amounts to a fine between $250 and $500.

The health department will contact the business owner and, if the problem remains after a third check, the inspector fines the business between $500 and $1,000.

“Hopefully it’s corrected there,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time it gets corrected after the first notice, but sometimes we have administrative hearings where the operator meets with a hearing officer and next steps are discussed, including the suspension of the license.”

It’s rare for a food-service license to be revoked, but it does happen, he said.

Consumer advocates

Consumers can be one of the most effective resources in maintaining public health, according to Gonzales.

“If the consumer thinks they have a foodborne illness, they need to call us,” he said. “We hear people say they think they got sick from so-and-so, but they didn’t call. Our goal is to work with the food establishment. If there’s a problem, let’s correct it.”

The region has a food safety advisory group representing about a dozen licensed retail establishments, he said.

“We also encourage folks to be involved with that group,” he said. “We like to run policies through that group and get an idea of the challenges they’re seeing. It’s a good way for the industry to provide the government feedback.”

While the public health department was struggling to meet community needs less than a decade ago, Gonzales said it is at full strength.

“We’ve worked a lot on how we could redirect program efficiencies with good technology,” he said. “Now all the inspectors have portable devices and can access the remote database to log comments at the facility. We can immediately email our inspection to the operator or owner.”

A state law will also increase funding to the department during the next three years, increasing its $1.2 million budget, Gonzales said.

For more food safety and public health information, as well as the results of restaurant inspections, visit elpasocountyhealth.org.

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