Whenever I find myself trying to define public health, I refer to the sentiment of my first public health professor: “everything is public health.” Though this is the thing that I love most about the field, that its definition is broad and relevance is far reaching, it is also what makes the role of public health difficult to understand. For this reason, I believe that it is vital to go out into the field and see public health professionals in action; this is how we learn about the true impact of public health initiatives and only then can we begin to formulate an appreciation for public health.
A couple weeks ago I had an opportunity to join a Registered Environmental Health Specialist on a few of his routine restaurant inspections. This wonderful opportunity gave me a chance to get out of the office on one of the last warm days of the season, but more importantly I got to see the tangible work that goes into ensuring that the food served at restaurants does not cause foodborne illness.
We used a dynamic method to complete the inspections, which means that instead of working down a check-list of potential violations, we moved naturally around the restaurant, making note of possible violations that would need a more in depth examination. The three restaurants that we inspected varied in atmosphere, size and ownership.
The first establishment that we inspected was a small, locally-owned Mexican restaurant. We arrived at the almost empty restaurant around 11 and were greeted by the owner. I was pleasantly surprised by how receptive he was, despite having to submit to a surprise inspection by a health department official. We did a walkthrough of the facility and found that the restaurant had no major violations except for one. Hot foods generally have 4-6 hours to cool down to proper holding temperature (41F) in the cooler. Unfortunately, a container of green chili that was prepared the night before had not cooled correctly and had to be disposed of. The inspector suggested dividing the chili amongst multiple containers in the future, to help it cool more quickly than when it is held in one large container. After the inspector completed an online inspection report, and provided the owner with an educational pamphlet, we were on our way.
The second and third establishments that we inspected had the same mission of serving Chinese food, but executed this differently. The first restaurant was medium sized and locally owned, the lunch time rush had subsided when we arrived. The first thing I noticed upon entering the kitchen was the complete abundance of raw chicken. It was being cut, fried or thawed on most surface areas. In the cooler, most food was incorrectly organized (chicken must be stored under pork because if it is dripped on, its higher cooking temperature will kill any germs). Overall, the restaurant had almost 20 violations, but to my surprise, I learned that this restaurant was less likely to make someone sick than the Mexican restaurant. The reason for this is that Chinese food is cooked at very high temperatures and is not touched by hand once it has been fried; essentially, all harmful germs are killed before they get to the plate. I think that this is a big reason why the accuracy of restaurant scoring is deliberated; a restaurant with a lower score may actually present a smaller health risk than a restaurant with an almost perfect score.
The third restaurant, also serving Chinese food, was corporately owned, which in this case means that the establishment is in almost perfect condition with minimal violations. The food was perfectly organized, labeled and stored, the facility was clean and the employees wore gloves and washed their hands appropriately. This was a very quick and simple inspection.
In addition to learning about the restaurant inspection process, I learned about the relation of health inspectors to the facilities that they inspect. Though I cannot generalize my one impression to all inspectors, I was really impressed with the inspector’s kindness towards restaurant owners/managers, his consideration and willingness to inspect a restaurant after their lunch rush, and his eagerness to answer every question, including mine.
The world of restaurant inspection may not seem like the most glamorous job in the world, but the people in this field are truly protecting us from some of the most inconvenient and preventable sicknesses out there. I hope that we can all take a moment to acknowledge the work that these environmental health professionals do, and appreciate their commitment to protecting and ensuring our public health.
Thanks for reading,