Silver Platter awards recognize businesses
with best practices
photo by Lance Henderson
They could be the most dreaded words for a food business to hear: “Hi, my name is Tom from the health department. I am here for a routine inspection today.”
They could be the most dreaded words. It all depends on the food business.
Every year in the state of Washington, hundreds of thousands of restaurants, food processors, dairies and other food businesses maintain a working relationship with local, state, or federal regulatory agencies that inspect them for unsafe conditions and practices that could result in a foodborne illness. But how those inspections go depends entirely on the business.
However, these regulators are not there to punish businesses, but to educate workers and owners about the proper practices that make food safe.
The Washington State Department of Health estimates that there may be as many as 1.5 million acute foodborne illnesses in Washington each year.
In Washington state, there is also a network of county health officials and state agriculture inspectors testing, analyzing and inspecting samples of most of the available food supply with the exception of meat, which is regulated through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and unprocessed, raw agriculture, which receives little regulation because there are fewer food safety risks.
Tom Kunesh, food safety program supervisor for the Whatcom County Health Department, said the health department has the equivalent of four health inspectors investigating the more than 1,100 retail food businesses in Whatcom County.
Kunesh said the majority of an inspector’s work is unannounced routine inspections, which can make some people a bit nervous.
“We really try to set people at ease,” Kunesh said. “When I ask questions, I try not to do it in a quick, confrontational way, but in more of a casual, slow, conversational tone and try to leave pauses for them to interject questions. That is how I try to train my inspectors.”
The health department’s surprise visit
It comes around every year as sure as spring.
Kunesh said just about all of Whatcom County’s more than 1,100 food businesses receive a visit from a health inspector every year, and every year the department also gives out the Silver Platter Award, an honor that recognizes excellence in safe food handling. The award is given to dining establishments that achieve outstanding scores during food safety inspections throughout the year. Only about 5 percent of the dining establishments inspected in 2008 met the strict criteria for the award.
“Once again, we want to acknowledge the efforts of operators who demonstrate a commitment to food safety in their restaurants,” said Regina Delahunt, Whatcom County public health director in statement.
This year, Jeckyl and Hyde Deli & Ale House was among the top businesses to receive the Silver Platter award.
Erika Barquist, manager at Jeckyl and Hyde, said that although they get a different person each year, the health inspectors have always been extremely helpful.
“If you have any questions for them, it’s really nice because they are very accommodating and if they find something, they let us know what we can do to make it right,” Barquist said.
Kunesh said when an inspector first arrives on the scene, he needs to make contact with the person in charge (PIC).
“It varies depending on the place,” Kunesh said. “At most of the chains, we won’t see an owner, we’ll see a general manager. With most of the independents, there is a better chance of seeing the owner.”
After meeting the PIC, Kunesh, said he trains all his inspectors to immediately find the hand-washing station and wash their hands.
“This is what we expect of food workers, so they have a right to expect this of us,” Kunesh said.
‘Our eyes are moving from the time we walk through the door’
After their hands are thoroughly washed, inspectors have an inspection sheet that is divided into two parts: red tag items, which pose the greatest threat of foodborne illness, and blue tag items, which pose little or no threat to food safety.
“We have to cover everything that is on the inspection list. Those are not really negotiable items, but how long we take and what order we do things is completely flexible,” Kunesh said.
From then on, the inspector performs an educated scan of the kitchen and dining area.
“Our eyes are working from the time we walk through the door and throughout the inspection, and we are looking for things that catch our attention, such as food that is out of place, temperature control issues, someone with bare hands touching salad — those will be the things that we address first.”
Barquist said she appreciates having the inspectors around.
“They just come and look around to make sure you are doing the right stuff,” Barquist said as she sanitized dishes in Jeckyl and Hyde’s kitchen.
Kunesh said an inspector would typically begin an inspection checking for red tag items, such as food temperatures, food sources, worker hygiene and chemical storage. They will then move on to lower risk blue tag factors, such as floors, walls and ceilings, proper labeling, and sanitizer concentrations.
Kunesh said it is very important for the PIC to demonstrate knowledge of food safety, which can be done in several ways. If there are no violations, that is sufficient demonstration of knowledge or perhaps the PIC has a food safety accreditation from an industry group.
“Otherwise, if we find some violations and no accreditations, then we get to play 20 questions with the operator,” Kunesh said. “However, we use that as an opportunity to say, ‘Here is what you really need to know.’”
At Jeckyl & Hyde, Barquist said they try to keep everyone involved in continuous cleaning. She said, as things get busy, it is important to know she can count on her team.
“It is more of a challenge when you are busy but that is when you just have to step it up and help out our fellow co-workers,” she said.
In the end, Barquist was really proud of her team for winning a Silver Platter Award.
“It’s just nice to know that we have gone above and beyond and that we are putting out a good product and have a place where people can feel confident in the food we serve,” she said.
photo by Lance Henderson
The state’s role in food safety
Claudia Coles, manager of the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s (WSDA) food safety program, said the state food safety program regularly inspects about 1,300 state food processors a year, provides technical assistance to help businesses meet food safety criteria, follows up on consumer complaints and administers food recalls.
The department also does surveillance of ready-to-eat foods, such as refrigerated to-go salads and sandwiches that can be eaten with no cooking. For example, a state inspector could buy an egg salad sandwich from a truck stop and test it for salmonella, Lysteria and E. coli among others.
Coles said seafood processors and produce farms are the highest-volume food producers in Washington state; seafood processors are inspected at least twice a year and produce farms are not licensed by the WSDA, although they have access to certain fee-based inspections.
“I look at seafood as a higher risk than a whole apple or a whole potato because the added-value processing presents more issues regarding food safety,” Coles said. “Processes like canning and vacuum sealing increase the risk of bacterial growth because it is changing the anaerobic environment of the product.”
There are some producers, Coles said, she would like to work with more, but since they are not technically food processors, which take a raw food and make it into something else, they are not licensed through the state.
“We are not getting out to fresh produce as much as I would like,” Coles said. “We also do not get out to leafy greens and raspberry farms.”
The family-owned, organic dairy
Aside from seafood, Coles said inspectors in Whatcom County spend a great deal of time inspecting local dairies — taking monthly samples and doing quarterly inspections.
Clarissa and Shawn Langley are fifth-generation dairy farmers off Jackman Road in Lynden. Shawn first started working the dairy when he was in sixth grade with his grandfather, Bertus Blankers, who farmed with his wife, Lena, for almost 70 years.
Both Shawn’s and Clarissa’s mothers grew up along Jackman Road, but the two didn’t meet until they had a blind date in Lynden.
The couple eventually took over Shawn’s family dairy in 1992 and got married in 1993. From 1992 to 2006, the Langleys shipped their milk to Darigold until they realized there weren’t any local, family-owned dairies producing organic milk.
After taking a year and a half to build a bottling and pasteurization plant, Fresh Breeze Organic Dairy was born.
“We just started raising our heifer calves organically from when they were born, and when they were old enough to milk, we sold our conventional herd to someone else for milking instead of trying to transition them to organic,” Clarissa said.
Organic or not, the WSDA’s staff of regional inspectors in Northwest Washington regularly inspects milk produced at farms such as Fresh Breeze Organic. Clarissa said having a government inspector show up the first time at her new bottling plant was quite scary.
“At first, I was a bit nervous about having a government agency come in, because you just don’t know what could come of that, but they are really more like a partner,” Clarissa said. “They are not coming here to try and shut you down, they are here to help keep you safe and help you stay in business.”
She said inspectors take monthly samples of the dairy’s raw and pasteurized milk.
“They just pick out a container at random and test it for any bacteria and then they test the same milk after pasteurization to make sure it was pasteurized properly,” she said.
Food safety inspectors also perform quarterly inspections to make sure the facility is clean and to test pasteurization times and temperatures. The dairy’s thermometers undergo rigorous testing to make sure pasteurization is occurring at the right temperature.
“Cleaning of equipment is very important. It has to be properly cleaned every time after we use it, so nothing can grow in there,” Clarissa said.
The tricky business of inspections
When inspecting food-processing businesses, state inspectors have seen some crazy things.
“I was doing an inspection and found a rat sitting on some product having its lunch. When I walked around the corner the rat didn’t care or run off right away, which spooked me. The firm did destroy the product and they called an exterminator,” said Robb Vezzetti, a WSDA inspector.
According to the WSDA’s northwest regional staff, who did not want to be named because of possible backlash, routine inspections give state inspectors a chance to evaluate and assess food safety practices with businesses that produce food for consumption and to identify potential issues which may impact public health.
“It’s having a second set of eyes to avoid overlooking problems,” a state inspector said in an e-mail. “It is also an opportunity to provide technical and educational assistance to those same businesses so they can implement improvements and be able to rely on their own internal procedures to identify and avoid issues.”
According to inspectors, they spend quite a bit of time observing all aspects of food processing. Inspectors will also review the process from ending to beginning to make sure there is no cross-contamination between raw and finished products.
“There is considerable judgment used to determine the difference between serious violations and those of a less serious nature,” a state food inspector said. “It is important to observe the actual processing and to observe employee practices when possible. It is also important to see the preparation before and sanitation procedures afterwards to have a more thorough picture of what food safety measures are taking place.”
For some businesses, this entire process can be harrowing. But for businesses who approach a health inspection as a learning experience, it can be positive. Clarissa Langley said working with state inspectors makes her feel like she has a partner in food safety.
“I guess I am glad that they have a system in place that keeps me focused on that,” she said.
Food service businesses that received zero violations during their 2008 health inspection:
- Acme Café
- Baker Lodge
- Beaver Inn
- Burger King — Blaine
- Camp Black Mountain
- Camp Horizon
- Camp Lutherwood
- Cold Stone Creamery
- Diablo Dining Hall
- Dos Padres
- Emerald City Smoothie
- Extremes Sports Grill
- Fiamma Burger
- Firs Chalet
- Flats Tapas Bar
- Haggen — Barkley Chef’s Counter
- Little Caesar’s Pizza — Yew Street
- Loomis Trail Golf Club
- McDonald’s — Bellis Fair Mall
- McDonald’s — Bellis Fair Mall
- Meadow Green
- Mi Mexico
- Mount Baker Motorcycle Club
- Mt. Baker White Salmon Lodge
- Original New York Pizza
- Papa Murphy’s—Bakerview
- Papa Murphy’s — James Street
- Panda Express
- Pioneer Catering
- Pizza Factory
- Salvation Army Camp Lummi
- Subway — Northwest Avenue
- Subway — Goodrich Ice Cream
- Subway — Third Ave, Ferndale
- Taco Bell — Stuart Road
- Taco Bell — Sunset Dr.
- Taco Bell—Meridian St.
- Tino’s Pizza and Pasta.
According to 2008 Whatcom County Food Establishment Inspection Reports
Top 20 establishments that received the most red tag violations (those most linked to foodborne illnesses) during their 2008 health inspection:
- Supon’s Thai Cuisine 130 points
- House of Orient 110 points
- Mexico Tipico 100 points
- Shores Restaurant 100 points
- Nuthouse Grill 100 points
- Kyoto Japanese Restaurant 90 points
- Fairway Cafe 90 points
- Spring Creek Retirement & Assisted Living 90 points
- Burger King 85 points
- Popeye’s Chicken & Biscuits 85 points
- El Ranchito 85 points
- CJ’s Beach House 85 points
- IHOP 85 points
- Cedar’s Restaurant & Lounge 80 points
- Waterfront Tavern 80 points
- Holy Smoke Bar & Grill 80 points
- El Gitano, Bellingham 75 points
- Las Cazuelas Mexican Grill 75 points
- Arby’s Restaurant, Bellingham 75 points
- Lee’s Drive-In 75 points
According to 2008 Whatcom County Food Establishment Inspection Reports