Inspector's gadget

June 15, 2003|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

If Jeff Reed were a sheriff, he'd have a thermometer in his holster.

For Reed, a food inspector for the Washington County Health Department, a thermometer is his main tool. He plunges it into a fried chicken breast, waits for the needle to rest, pulls it out and wipes it off.

He repeats this with meatloaf, gravy, clam chowder, potato salad, blue cheese salad dressing, cottage cheese and an ambrosia-style dessert - checking if hot food is hot enough or cold food is too warm.

Reed and two other inspectors cover the county. At least once a year, they inspect retail establishments that serve or sell food. They go to restaurants, nursing homes, schools, prisons, grocery stores and convenience stores.


They look favorably on three-compartment sinks, meats separated from other food and domes over light bulbs.

They give bad marks to dripping pipes, bathrooms without hand soap and food that sits at the wrong temperature too long.

Reed said there are standards for how cold refrigerators must be (45 degrees or lower), how cold freezers must be (0 degrees or lower) and how food can be safely cooled or heated.

"The two critical things for bacteria (are) time and temperature," he said.

Reed knows the minimum internal temperatures for fish (145 degrees), beef and pork (155 degrees) and poultry (165 degrees). Those foods must stay at their minimum temperature for at least 15 seconds.

Inspectors try to make three visits a year to high-priority establishments - ones that prepare, heat, cool and serve many servings and types of food each day.

One inspection is environmental, which includes food preparation, storage and sanitation plus conditions inside and outside the building, such as trash collection or sewage.

The other two inspections during the year are for monitoring of food preparation, storage and sanitation.

Medium-priority establishments get one environmental and one monitoring visit a year. Low-priority places get one environmental inspection.

Reed, who supervises the food inspection program, said the Health Department also investigates complaints from the public about establishments and their practices.

With 646 establishments (as of last week) to check in Washington County each year and just three inspectors, the department welcomes the public to be "eyes and ears" for food service problems, Reed said.

Last year, The Herald-Mail revived a prior policy of printing, roughly once a month, the outcomes of environmental inspections. The April list took up nearly two pages of the paper.

Two establishments were shut down temporarily because of critical violations. Neither had hot water.

Seven had critical violations they had to fix immediately. They did not have to close.

Seventy-five establishments had sanitation violations that had to be fixed within 30 days.

Eleven stand-alone businesses and 13 vendors at the Hagerstown City Farmers' Market had no violations.

A thermometer and a watchful eye guide Reed and the other inspectors in their observations.

The inspection

The Health Department agreed to let a Herald-Mail reporter and photographer accompany Reed on an inspection last week on the condition that the newspaper not identify the restaurant. Inspections are supposed to be unannounced, but Reed called ahead just before he left his office to make sure the manager didn't object to the newspaper tagging along.

Reed found only a few minor problems, none directly connected to food preparation or handling, which is what he was inspecting. A spray bottle of blue liquid - glass cleaner - was not labeled. A refrigerator did not have an interior thermometer. A filter over a stove was missing. Water dripped from a pipe.

Afterward, although the manager was willing to talk for this story about his restaurant and the work that goes into keeping on top of health conditions, Reed said the Health Department insisted on keeping the establishment anonymous.

The inspection took about an hour.

Reed started by looking in refrigerators. Each must have a working thermometer. However, Reed must, as Ronald Reagan used to say, "trust, but verify." Reed checked the internal temperature of each refrigerator with his own thermometer.

He made sure meat didn't sit on shelves above ready-to-eat foods. Dripping meat juice could cause cross-contamination.

Next, Reed eyed the sinks.

Establishments that prepare food must have a three-compartment sink to wash, rinse and sanitize dishes and utensils. A separate sink is necessary to wash mops. Employees must wash their hands in other sinks, away from mops, dishes and food.

Dry foodstuff, such as spaghetti, macaroni, oats and bacon pieces, must be sealed in containers.

Cans containing gravy or dressing can't be severely dented.

Syrup can't accumulate on the soda fountain nozzles. To make sure, Reed stuck his head underneath and looked up.

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