Computer Inspection Added To Restaurants' Menu

New System To Take Closer Look At Food Preparation

April 28, 1991|By Kerry O'Rourke | Kerry O'Rourke,Staff writer

A new inspection system for restaurants and other businesses that serve food will be more thorough than the old system and will emphasizeproper food handling and preparation, county health officials said.

Inspectors will use a computer to determine whether soup, meat, lasagna and other foods that could become contaminated are heated and cooled properly, said Tiffany Crone, acting director of community hygiene for the Carroll County Health Department.

Some restaurant owners say they agree with the new system in principle, but are concerned the new procedures will be time-consuming and unnecessary.

The new system, which will be used in the county beginning in May, will require more inspections each year at most businesses that serve food.

Under the old system, inspectors visited restaurants and most other food establishments, such as convenience andgrocery stores, twice a year. The inspector gave the business a numerical rating based on its score on a one-page checklist of items thatincluded food preparation and the condition of the kitchen and building.

The new system places more emphasis on how food is handled and prepared, rather than on the physical aspects of the building, Crone said. Businesses also simply will pass or fail the inspection.

Restaurants that cook certain foods, such as meat, then reheat them to serve later are considered "high priority" and will be inspected three times a year, said Charles L. Zeleski, assistant director of environmental health for the county.

But first, the county must determine "critical" points where contamination could occur in the preparation of food at each business, he said. To do this, an inspector will use a "digital temperature indicator," a computer about the size of a pie box, with eight thin wires attached.

The wire temperature probes are poked into foods, ovens and coolers, Crone said.

A small printer documents the temperature at certain intervals while the foodis cooking and cooling, she said.

The county purchased the $4,000machine several years ago and has used it in about a dozen restaurants a year since, Zeleski said. The county was aware the new state regulations were coming and wanted to acquaint inspectors and business owners with the machine, he said.

At two of the three required inspections, inspectors will check nine items considered critical to preventing contamination. Some of these include proper food cooling, heating and serving; healthy employees and proper hand washing; hot and cold running water; and a properly functioning sewage system.

Violations of the nine critical items must be corrected on the spot. If not, the county can close the business if it poses an immediate health risk, Zeleski said.

The third inspection will concentrate on itemssuch as pest control, food equipment, garbage disposal and the building itself. Violations of these items must be corrected within 30 days, Crone said.

The county is sponsoring two training sessions for food service owners and employees to explain the new regulations, which took effect statewide March 4, she said.

Larry Wilhelm, owner of Friendly Farm restaurant in Westminster and past president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, and Frank Kosmakos, owner of Maria's of Westminster and an association board member, said they agree the procedures are good, but they don't know if the state has enough inspectors -- three working full time to inspect 541 food service facilities in the county -- to do the detailed work.

Wilhelm also said the system may cause problems for some independent restaurant owners who might "not understand the science behind" the procedures.

The procedures should be used as quality-control and educational tools, not as regulations, Kosmakos said.

Food-borne illness has not increased enough in Maryland to justify changing the inspection system, hesaid.

Figures he obtained from the federal government and the National Restaurant Association in Washington show that the number of outbreaks of food-borne illness remained constant from 1986 to 1989.

The old inspection system wasn't perfect, either, he said.

A restaurant could lose points for not having a light bulb in a certain place, which has nothing to do with sanitation, Kosmakos said.

The new system should be phased in over several years, they said. Food service operators should be educated about the procedures before being forced to comply with them, they said.

Wilhelm said, "No bona-fide professional restaurant operator wants to make anybody sick. It puts you right out of business."

Bob E. Harrington of the National Restaurant Association said New York tried to implement the same state inspection procedures, but couldn't because of budget restraints. WashoeCounty, Nev., home of Reno and numerous casinos with buffet tables, is the only jurisdiction that has implemented the procedures successfully, he said.

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