Restaurant inspectors fight ignorance, carelessness

August 02, 1993|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Staff writer

Sanitarian Sam Poster is the Lieutenant Columbo of the culinary world, right down to the cigars in his shirt pocket.

In 23 years of inspecting restaurants, Mr. Poster has witnessed every kind of infraction, including these shockers:

* A chef using her teeth to rip the skin off raw chicken.

* Sewage oozing into bags of uncooked rice.

* A food-slicing machine humming away in a men's room.

"What we're fighting is ignorance," says Mr. Poster, chief sanitarian for the Harford County Health Department.

He says that some restaurant owners and food handlers "don't understand microorganisms at all."

Bacteria can contaminate your meal and give you food poisoning. Though it seldom happens, Mr. Poster and about 40 other Baltimore-area inspectors try to further reduce the odds.

Many of them credit the majority of restaurants with practicing good sanitation, and some are nearly spotless.

But there is concern that the industry's margin of safety is being eroded here and there by carelessness, lack of training and a cavalier attitude.

"It's amazing that [some restaurants] don't accept responsibility for adhering to regulations" and need constant prodding, says Jeanette Lyon, chief of the state health department's Division of Food Control.

The division sets inspection guidelines for local sanitarians who, unlike the police lieutenant on television, are armed with food thermometers and never see the bacteria they pursue.

Mr. Poster, 51, enjoys his work, for which he is paid $36,000 a year. His one wish is that sanitarians had more clout. Sometimes he feels handcuffed by Maryland's system of restaurant regulation, which stresses education and negotiation, not crackdowns and fines.

Mr. Poster must tutor, coax and prod restaurant operators. A few drag their feet or act as if inspections are a nuisance.

"Sometimes I feel like my hands are tied," he says. "Closing a place down for anything other than an immediate health hazard takes weeks and requires all kinds of paperwork."

Immediate hazards include sewage backups, a lack of hot water, or high bacteria counts in tap water.

While inspecting an establishment in Bel Air, Mr. Poster huddles with the owner to explain the dangers of food poisoning.

The inspector is taken aback by the response.

"That's a lot of hype," the owner says. "You're looking at this from a health standpoint. Why don't you ask my customers about the food?"

Mr. Poster warns that there won't be any customers if the restaurant does not improve.

"Look at the price Jack-In-The-Box is paying," he adds, referring to the food-borne outbreak of poisoning in Washington state that caused the deaths of two children and sickened about 500 people. The January outbreak was traced to undercooked hamburgers of the Jack-In-The-Box chain.

Continuing the inspection, Mr. Poster peers into containers filled with sauces and dips. He checks the temperatures with his thermometer.

Cold food should register 45 degrees or below; hot items, 140 degrees or above.

Food held between those temperatures is ripe for bacterial growth, says Mr. Poster. For instance, food kept at normal body temperature -- 98.6 degrees -- would be condemned on the spot.

His thermometer must be sterilized between each food check, so Mr. Poster asks for some bleach and a glass. He receives them and frowns. "A clean glass," he insists. An employee had handed him an unwashed one.

Mr. Poster says he has inspected restaurants where a bottle of bleach was nowhere to be found.

"Some places don't understand basic sanitation," he says. "I don't think many people comprehend what they learned in biology class.

"The most common excuse we hear [from food managers] when we point out violations is, 'I didn't know that.' And I believe them."

Lukewarm sausage

He spots a potential problem -- a stack of lukewarm cooked sausages piled beside the stove -- and proceeds to grill the cook.

"How long have these patties been sitting out here?" Mr. Poster asks. The temperature of the meat is 110 degrees, well within the danger zone.

The cook, a man in his early 20s, ventures a guess. "An hour?" he offers.

The ambiguity annoys Mr. Poster, who keeps prodding. Finally, the cook admits the sausages may have been at room temperature for three to four hours.

"That's too long," says Mr. Poster. "Staph will grow on the sausages in four hours."

"But I reheat them before I serve them," the cook protests.

Mr. Poster is adamant. "If certain bacteria had started growing in those sausages, you could heat them to 2,000 degrees, and it wouldn't destroy the toxins," he says.

The meat is discarded.

Meanwhile, Mr. Poster's inspection has uncovered other temperature violations: four dozen eggs that are not refrigerated, and a walk-in cooler which, at 47 degrees, is a shade too warm.

Too warm? The restaurant owner sounds perplexed.

"What should it be, 40 degrees?"

Forty-five degrees, tops, says Mr. Poster. The owner resets the thermostat.

"See, you learn something every day," the owner says, smiling.

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