Making the grade: F-M food inspecting a complicated process
FARGO – Looking at the neat stacks of food containers in the walk-in cooler, inspector Ken Tinquist talked about the staff of CJ's Kitchen as if they were star pupils.
"This is one of the places you talk about," he said Thursday during the restaurant inspection, which was unannounced as usual. "If everyone did date-marking like they do, I'd be excited, because they do it right."
Every container had labels clearly stating when the food inside was prepared and when it needs to be thrown out — and the math was perfect, according to Tinquist. He said he often has to teach cooks to count the day of preparation as Day 1 and add only six instead of seven days, but not at CJ's.
A retired science teacher and wrestling coach who started a second career with Fargo Cass Public Health's environmental health unit, Tinquist said he still sees himself as an educator. That's key because, with hundreds of establishments serving food and alcohol around the Fargo-Moorhead area and only a handful of inspectors, enforcement alone isn't enough.
"We can't be there 24/7," said Grant Larson, who runs the unit. Education helps owners and workers understand why the rules are important and ingrain it in their daily routine, he said.
Larson and Bruce Jaster, his counterpart in Clay County, said it's been a challenge to keep up with the education because restaurant employee turnover is so high due to the area's labor shortage and because there are more new establishments opening up all the time.
Nevertheless, many of the pupils have done well. Out of 907 establishments The Forum examined, 374 had zero violations over a 12-month period, CJ's Kitchen among them. That's about 40 percent. There were 671 more that had zero violations considered critical.
Even the ones that have a lot of violations are not nearly the threat that they might seem, according to inspectors. Violations represent heightened risk, not danger. If they were a danger to the public, the county would shut them down.
The hundreds of rules that Cass and Clay county inspectors educate workers about are all designed to prevent food contamination with microbes, toxic chemicals or other material people shouldn't eat. The need for some of the rules can be very obvious, such as the rule on date-marking — among the most common critical violations — but some are not so obvious, such as the rule on three-compartment sinks.
For dishwashing, there has to be one sink for soaping up, one for rinsing and one for applying sanitizing agents, Tinquist said. The dishes have to air dry and not be wiped dry because that would wipe away sanitizer, he said.
Establishments serving food that carries a higher risk, such as the raw fish at sushi restaurants, have tougher rules. The supplier has to document that the fish has been flash frozen to ensure all parasites are killed.
The rules aren't hard to understand but there are lots of them and they require enormous attention to detail.
At CJ's Kitchen, about the only problem Tinquist noted was that plastic utensils for to-go boxes weren't stored with handles pointing in one direction. He said that's preferred because a server can easily grab the handle and not accidentally touch any surface that would later come into contact with food.
Owner Curt Ness, the "C" in "CJ," said his crew wears gloves when they reach for utensils, which satisfied Tinquist that the utensils are not at risk of contamination.
Workers are key
The main difference between establishments that do well on these inspections and those that don't is usually experience, according to inspectors Larson and Jaster. High turnover makes that a challenge and even establishments that have longtime managers may find it hard to keep up with training, especially if they're short-staffed and the managers are getting burnt out substituting for missing workers.
Tinquist said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which provides many of the rules that Cass and Clay counties use, has concluded that more than half of outbreaks of foodborne diseases are caused not by food contaminated at the source — for instance, spinach with E. coli — but by food-service workers.
That makes the behavior of those workers very important.
Restaurant owner Ness agreed. "To me it's not the product so much as it is the worker. We've got people that are — my wife is a fanatic as is she," he said, motioning toward the kitchen where Jan Ness and Emily Mathew, the kitchen manager, were working. "It's insane what they do."
Jan Ness, the "J" in "CJ," said it's just about sticking to established procedures. She said Mathew goes through the food nearly every day, making a list of what to needs to be thrown out, and the kitchen is cleaned constantly.
What violations mean
While inspection reports are an important way to keep track of which establishments are following the rules and minimizing risks to customers, they don't tell the entire story, according to inspectors.
"When we do our inspections, this is a snapshot of a time and place," said Jaster. "We could come back a week later and it could be worse or better."
He, Larson and Tinquist said many critical violations can be corrected immediately, such as cleaning the mold that can grow inside ice machines, and inspectors may check other critical violations by returning for a second inspection.
The worst offender in Cass County, for example, actually did much better the second time around. Rugsan Cuisine, with six violations, four of them critical, was the worst in Fargo when inspected July 31. A week later, it got another inspection and had just two non-critical violations.
Jaster said his department sometimes just verifies that violations have been corrected without writing up a new inspection.
Inspectors in Clay County try to visit each establishment once a year. In Cass County, they're starting a new regime where low-risk establishments get one visit a year but high-risk establishments can get as many as four in a year. Tinquist said a restaurant like CJ's Kitchen, which is open for breakfast and lunch, may get three a year, but grocery stores four because of the higher volume.
The words "critical violations" can also be misleading, according to inspectors.
Not all are equal, Jaster said. A leaky plumbing trap, that U-bend under the sink, is a critical violation by FDA rules but doesn't really affect the public, he said, while not cooling or heating food to the right temperature is a much more serious critical violation.
When it's the latter, inspectors can take drastic action to protect the public, such as closing a restaurant.
If a cooler was found to be at 57 degrees instead of 41 or below as it's supposed to be, and it's been that way more than four hours, Jaster said, an inspector will order all the food in it to be thrown away.
There hasn't been a restaurant shut down in Moorhead recently and the last one in Fargo was when the Grand Buffet had its license suspended for repeat violations and never reopened. The food wasn't date marked properly and the cooler and freezer wasn't functioning properly.
Larson said the buffet seemed to just be hanging on until all its inventory was used up, and inspectors had to shut it down.