My Two Cents is a weekly opinion column from Bethesda resident Joseph Hawkins. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BethesdaNow.com.
When I began writing this column, I made a promise to readers: Add to the discussion things that ultimately improve Bethesda. That was the goal in 2013 and it still is the goal.
I don’t think I’ve lost my way yet. However, I feel as though my recent “Hold the Coleslaw” piece on local food inspection violations rattled some BethesdaNow readers.
I decided not to revisit the specifics of which Bethesda restaurants are clean or dirty, but instead, to step back and examine what Montgomery County’s 19 health inspectors do.
To that end, I chatted with Kenny Welch, the county’s manager of for Environmental Health Programs in the Department of Health and Human Services. Before taking over this position in 2007, Kenny had been a health inspector in Frederick and Montgomery Counties.
Joseph Hawkins: During a typical food or restaurant inspection, what happens?
Welch: There are two different types of inspections; a monitoring inspection and a comprehensive inspection.
A monitoring inspection checks critical items and performs a menu review inspecting if the facility is properly identifying the critical steps to prevent food contamination in the food handling process and properly monitoring and correcting issues as they evolve including temperature control.
The other inspection is the most in depth inspection called a comprehensive inspection. This is a combination of the monitoring inspection combined with a physical facility inspection.
The physical facility inspection includes inspection of the facility floors, walls, ceilings, lighting, ventilation, hoods, food equipment, toxic substances and cleaning supplies storage and use, cleaning, rinsing, and sanitizing, mechanical ware washing, presence of insects, rodents birds, or other animals, trash disposal, hand washing, bathrooms, and waste lines for backflow.
Under state of Maryland regulations, a “critical violation” must be corrected immediately.
Hawkins: Can you explain a little about the different outcomes from an inspection?
Welch: With any violation (other than a critical or imminent health hazard) the facility has 30 days, unless otherwise specified, to correct. An inspector may choose to ask for a corrective action report, which basically is a written agreement the facility will correct the violations within a specific timeframe. Or, the inspector may choose to come back and perform a re-inspection. If the violations are minor and the inspector has a good working relationship with the facility, some violations can be checked at the next routine inspection.
Hawkins: What is the logic behind the actual closure of a restaurant? How much time is a closed restaurant provided to make corrections?
Welch: Closures are dependent on the verification of critical items. Closure of the facility ensures the potential for a public health hazard to cease. Facilities are not permitted to re-open until the violation is corrected and continuous compliance may be ascertained.
Hawkins: Could you explain why checking for holding cold and hot temperatures during an inspection is so critically important?
Welch: Science has told us that food holding temperatures are necessary to prevent foodborne illness. Science dictates what foods needs to be temperature controlled and at what temperature to prevent or kill the growth of microorganisms or prevent a spore from becoming a toxin. Other factors that prevent bacteria growth is water activity and pH levels. FDA did food testimonies of actual illnesses that may be good to post and drive home the point.
Hawkins: Several weeks ago, news media outlets reported a listeria monocytogenes outbreak associated with eating a certain company’s ice cream. Have there ever been any reported cases of listeria in the county?
Welch: In 2014, there was a multi-state listeria monocytogenes outbreak involving eight individuals, one in California and seven Maryland. Seven of eight ill persons were hospitalized. One death was reported in California. The food causing the outbreaks was processed in another state and was sold at stores in Prince George’s, Montgomery, and Manassas, Virginia. A collaboration between the local, state and FDA resulted in the company being found as the likely source. The Listeria strains from the product were highly likely to be the same sequence of strains received by the patients resulting in the detention and suspension of the manufacture selling the product.
Hawkins: Knowing what you know, is it difficult for you to eat out at restaurants?
Welch: While food safety is always in the back of my head, I’m eating out all the same food facilities as everyone else.
Flickr photo by ehpien
Joseph Hawkins is a longtime Bethesda resident who remembers when there was no Capital Crescent Trail. He works full-time for an employee-owned social science research firm located Montgomery County. He is a D.C. native and for nearly 10 years, he wrote a regular column for the Montgomery Journal. He also has essays and editorials published in Education Week, the Washington Post, and Teaching Tolerance Magazine. He is a serious live music fan and is committed to checking out some live act at least once a month.