Inspection rating focuses food handlers on priority avoiding contamination

June 21, 1994|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Sun Staff Writer

Patricia Robinson walked into the kitchen of Griffins West Street Grill in Annapolis yesterday and stuck her thermometer into just about everything that was warmed, cooled, sliced, diced, stirred, grated or peeled.

Such matters are of grave concern to Ms. Robinson -- sanitarian, food inspector and keeper of the county health department's food thermometer.

"It's got to be maintained at the proper temperature to prevent bacteria and food-borne illness," she said during her surprise inspection.

Ms. Robinson, a food inspector for 12 years, was demonstrating the health department's new system of evaluating more than 1,500 restaurants, delicatessens, schools, hospitals, nursing homes and other establishments that prepare and serve food.

The Hazardous Analysis Critical Control Points system, adopted in late 1991, makes it easier for inspectors to show food handlers which violations are most likely to contaminate food and potentially cause food poisoning.

"It forces the restaurant to look at food more carefully, from the time it comes through the door until it's served to the customer," Ms. Robinson said.

For more than 20 years, county food inspectors used a 100-point grading system that was difficult for the public to gauge which violations were most critical, said Robert Weber, deputy chief of Food Control and Recreational Waters.

A restaurant with a score of 85, for example, would seem to be doing better than one with a 75. But the higher-scoring restaurant might have lost points for food contamination, whereas the lower-scoring one might have lost more points overall, but for far less serious violations.

The new method gets to the crux of the matter. "Preventing food contamination is the primary goal," Ms. Robinson said. "In the past, food preparation was not emphasized as much."

Restaurants must pass nine "critical" areas, including proper cooling or warming of food, the health and cleanliness of employees and having an approved food supply.

If even one critical area is violated, workers must correct the violation while the inspector is present or the restaurant will be closed.

When the county adopted the new scoring system, it stopped making public the results, Mr. Weber said.

Inspectors and restaurant managers needed time to get used to it, and administrators needed time to develop a computer program to track scores so they could be easily understood, he said.

"The old system lent itself easily to being published -- it was one score and anything over 70 was passing," he explained.

Although it's taken almost three years, the health department again will begin publishing inspection results July 7, said spokeswoman Evelyn Stein. The new report will indicate whether a restaurant had a critical violation and whether a follow-up inspection was ordered.

"I think the data is finally available in such a way that it will be meaningful to the public," Mr. Weber said. The health department will release inspection results twice a month.

Back at Griffins, nothing escaped the scrutiny of Ms. Robinson -- not soup warmers or condiment coolers, soap dispensers or dishwasher. Even the trash bin out back got the once over.

Although the veteran inspector found several violations -- most notably employees snacking on french fries in the kitchen and a lack of sanitizing fluid for the dishwasher -- the violations were not cause for alarm, she said.

"Even in a good place, you're going to have things that are wrong," she said. "What we're really looking for is food contamination . . . These are small items, mostly housekeeping things."

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