National Public Health Week Story: Restaurant Inspector

Kara began working for the health department in early 2010 in 
the Food and Community Safety Program as an Environmental Health Specialist, also known as a restaurant, field, or health inspector.  Our team has eleven environmental health field inspectors that are each responsible for conducting inspections within our own assigned geographic area.

Every restaurant in Pierce County is inspected one to three or more times per year depending on the complexity of the menu being served and their compliance with the food safety code during previous inspections.  

During the inspections we look for proper cooking and maintaining foods at the right temperatures, contaminated equipment, food from unsafe sources, and employee cleanliness and hygiene … hand washing! We arrive unannounced and introduce ourselves, although we are easily recognizable with our navy blue smocks and hats with the Health Department logo and our ID badges.  After entering the kitchen, we wash our hands to set a good example for employees and to avoid spreading contamination ourselves. Most managers and employees are more than happy to work with us, however in some situations employees quickly hide things and may be confrontational. One time, Kara was unable to locate the manager for 45 minutes of her inspection until an employee found him hiding upstairs.

During inspections, the health department cites all major or critical violations found and works to correct the problems. An important part of our evaluation is checking the temperatures of foods known to grow bacteria if left in the danger zone, between 41⁰ and 140⁰ Fahrenheit. 

During an inspection last year at a national restaurant chain location in Kara's area, she introduced herself to the new manager, washed her hands, and began her inspection.  It was 11:00 a.m., so the restaurant was just about to hit the lunchtime rush. Shortly into the inspection, she obtained a cooking temperature for some hamburgers coming off the grill.  Although hamburgers should always reach a final cooking temperature of 155⁰F, I was surprised to find 12 hamburgers cooked with a minimum cooking temperature of 131⁰F. That wasn’t high 
enough to kill off any potential E. coli, so we discarded those hamburgers.

The manager offered to cook three more hamburgers for 
Kara as per company protocol for checking cooking 
temperatures. When they came off the grill, the 
thermometer read 156⁰F, which was in the safe range.  
Hmmm, perhaps the first batch was an anomaly. She 
decided to set up her laptop by the grill station to 
continue making observations.  Soon after, 12 more small 
hamburgers were cooked, and these came out with a 
minimum cooking temperature of 141⁰F. We again discarded all 12 hamburgers. There seemed to be a distinct difference in cooking three 
hamburgers versus cooking 12 hamburgers during a 
normal lunch rush. She had the manager make adjustments to the grill to allow the hamburgers to cook longer and cooked another batch of 12 that reached 155⁰F.
However, Kara wasn’t convinced that cooking temperatures would remain at 155⁰F after what she had seen so far. She had the manager adjust the grill one more time and cooked another batch to obtain a final cooking temperature of 158⁰F.

The facility was cited for a critical cooking violation and provided a copy of the final report detailing Kara's findings, requirements to meet code, and corrective actions taken during inspection. She reported the situation to her boss Rachel for further investigation and correction.

For more information check out the Pierce County Health Department's Foodborne Illness Fact Sheet