Food safety inspectors spill the beans on restaurant audits

5 min read2,186 views and 76 shares Posted February 25, 2020

It’s something inspectors want. It’s something local business owners need. It’s something the public never gets sick of—metaphorically, at least.

Food safety. It’s a win-win-win.

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Around these parts, we take our food safety very seriously. Local inspections are performed on a regular basis, for the most part, retail food establishments are cooperative and in compliance, and the dining public can rest easy.

Food safety is everyone’s business

“By and large, restaurants are very well-run and supervised, because everyone’s on the same page,” Shannon Powers, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, told LebTown. “Owners don’t want their customers to have a bad experience of any kind. The vast majority of restaurants are in compliance. Both the agriculture and food industries want food to be safe.”

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Inspections allow people to enjoy food safely no matter where they are in the state without worry.

“For most businesses, it’s their livelihood and food safety is a primary concern,” said Glenn Yanos, the city of Lebanon’s food safety inspector. “They care about it, because it’s their business. It doesn’t help their business if their food isn’t safe. With any business, when another set of eyes comes in, it can be helpful. It could be things they haven’t thought of. Everyone I meet deeply cares about food safety.”

Lebanon County is part of the south central Pennsylvania region adhering to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s food codes. Last year, the Department of Agriculture performed 60 percent of the regular safety inspections at retail food facilities in the county—restaurants, grocery stores, convenience stores, coffee shops, food trucks, sports venues—while the city of Lebanon and West Lebanon conducted their own inspections, representing most of the remaining 40 percent.

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“If people get sick, they attribute it to something they ate,” said Powers. “Sometimes they got sick and it wasn’t from something they ate. When there’s a food-borne illness it doesn’t happen in the restaurant or right after they leave the restaurant. It’s usually not one person getting sick. It’ll be a number of people who ate at the same restaurant at the same time.”

Food safety includes anything that could make people sick, cause injury or prove to be fatal. That includes hand-washing (hand-washing sinks, for example, are to be separated and only used for hand-washing). other sinks. Pretty simple stuff.

“Hand washing is taught in the first grade,” Yanos said. “None of this stuff is very complicated.”

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How food safety inspections work

Regular food safety audits are performed once a year and are unannounced by law. Some inspections are triggered by consumer complaints. All new businesses must be inspected before they open. Follow-up visits, on the other hand, can be scheduled or announced.

When inspectors visit local retail food establishments they follow the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s Retail Food Facility Safety Report—a 57-item checklist of possible violations. Generally, the inspections take anywhere between 20 minutes to four hours to complete, depending upon quantity and type of food being prepared.

An example of a retail food inspection at the Pizza Hut on Cumberland Street in Lebanon.
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“People think a violation is severe, and it can be,” said Powers. “But there are some things that are out of an owner’s control. The violations on the inspection report run the gamut.”

Violations range from food being kept at the wrong temperature to food being stored but not properly labeled to employees washing their hands in a sink where food is being prepared.

“The standard inspection report is basically a checklist of food safety risks,” said Powers. “It’s an educational tool, so going forward, owners and managers know what they need to do.”

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Yanos said businesses are supposed to be on their toes, ready for inspections at any time.

“When you go out, you’re looking for the things on that checklist. The first thing I do when I go out to an establishment is wash my hands,” said Yanos.

Food safety, he said, starts with management. If management doesn’t care about food safety, customers aren’t going to be served safe food.

In 2019, 722 food-safety inspections were performed at 567 retail-food establishments in Lebanon County, an average of 1.27 inspections per facility. From those inspections, a total of 1,367 violations of the Pennsylvania Food Code were detected.

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Overall, 95.7 percent of the local retail-food establishments in Lebanon County were found to be in compliance. A total of 31 were deemed to be non-compliant.

“Personally, the food safety risks absolutely do go through my mind, but more when I’m preparing food than when I go out to eat,” said Powers. “Sometimes I think I’d get docked on all of these things. There may be things you’re not aware of.”

That’s why some food inspectors allow for some wiggle room, as long as everything’s compliant when they leave or return.

“We [food safety inspectors] typically don’t revisit things unless they’re out of compliance,” said Yanos. “Then we’ll do a follow-up visit. Places that have a history of problems are scheduled to be inspected more often. But I’ve seen significant improvement in some. Some things we let it up to them to fix. People can correct things while I’m there, the easy fixes.”

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Where to find food safety reports

The general public is very concerned about food safety. Inspection data is localized and easy to find in counties across Pennsylvania, where it is made public by the state. Consumers can access that information directly from the Department of Agriculture, and the results of food safety audits published frequently by local newspapers (The Inquirer‘s Clean Plates series) and digital publishers (LebTown’s regular food safety violations reports).

In addition to its new EatSafePA app released in the Play Store and App Store this past October, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture keeps inspection data open and accessible via their website.

“We want to be as transparent as possible,” said Powers. “The public is interested in the food they eat and that the food they eat is safe. Newspapers will publish the inspection results in the public’s interest. The data is here, and it’s readily available.”

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It can be difficult to compare the rigidity of the inspection process from restaurant to restaurant, from county to county. Every operation is a little different from the next.

“Some places are doing a lot less, so the chances of finding things are a lot less,” he said. “At some establishments, the processes are less involved. If you want, you can find a violation. But you try to be reasonable.”

Food safety inspections in the United States date back to the beginning of the 20th century. Over the past hundred years, the regulations governing food safety have changed to reflect the ever-evolving ways foods are prepared and consumed in our society.

“It’s been a long history,” said Powers. “The effort has been around since the beginning of the 20th century. Food safety is not a static science. The national standard has become important because of people traveling from place to place. They want standards that are across the board.”

Everyone involved in food production and service want their product to be safe, Powers added.

“There are a lot of challenges that come with food safety,” she said. “But it’s something that the agriculture industry cares deeply about.”

As long as we continue to care about food safety, we can continue to consume each meal with confidence.

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