Restaurant inspectors make food safety their main course

Health Program coordinators Lynne Morgan and Lance Caulk look at a floor plan at the Health Inspector office in Dover on Wednesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — Averaged out, three to four complaints arrive daily.

State health officials are committed to investigating the food safety claims and enforcing standards for the public good.

From Jan. 7 to Feb. 19, 14 cease and desist orders were issued by the Division of Public Health for issues at eateries statewide, including three in Dover, one each in Georgetown and Milford.

From April to December 2019, details on 58 cases statewide were available online at dhss.delaware.gov in the DPH division’s restaurant inspections section.

There’s information on enforcement actions and a database for all past inspection reports (routine and followups), including those establishments with no violations.

Consumers call 744-4736 to report health issues “ranging from sanitation, illness, pest, and unpermitted operations,” according to the DPH. Administrative specialists monitor the hotline and enter information into a database for county offices under the Office of Environmental Health Field Services to evaluate.

Delaware Restaurant Association President and CEO Carrie Leishman said the possible proliferation of bad publicity in the social media age should spur establishments to remain vigilant in always meeting official standards.

“From a restaurant perspective, good food safety is non-negotiable,” she said. “If an establishment is doing it wrong then it should be shut down.”

The First State has 4,000 or more food service permit holders and Ms. Leishman said “Delaware overall is a great place to dine out and we encourage folks do it often.

“The number of locations shut down in a year is a small amount considering the overall number of food service venues available.
“When it comes to Delaware compared to other states, we do it pretty (darn) good.”

Once inspectors visit, businesses are typically open to suggestion and orders for improvement.

“Generally, food operators are cooperative and understands how important food safety is for their business,” said Jae Kim,
administrator of Community Environmental Health Field Services which along with the Office of Food Protection is under Health Systems Protection.

“Our inspectors are regulators and our top priority is to protect the public health. At the same time, we see our relationship with the operators as an important partnership in the fight to prevent foodborne illness. Our inspectors are constantly educating the operators during inspection.”

The DPH is part of the Department of Health and Social Services.

Types of infractions

When it comes to infractions, Ms. Kim said, “Most prevalent discrepancies inspectors see are hot/cold hold temperature, cross-contamination of raw to ready-to-eat products, bare hand contact with ready-to-eat products, and improper equipment sanitation.”

Inspectors work in all three counties, operating from Environmental Health Field Services field offices in the Health Systems Protection section while working collaboratively with the Office of Food Protection. Jamie Mack is the Health Systems Protection chief.

Business owners may appeal any decision to suspend a permit by requesting a hearing, according to the Delaware Food Code.

While food safety violations do not bring fines, re-inspection fees can range from $50 to $250. A fine up to $1,000 can result if a business opens without DPH inspections and approval, or continues to operate after ordered to close.

There’s ample opportunity and guidance for an establishment to re-open and ultimately remain in business.

“DPH’s actions always provide a path to reopen whether that’s via changes in procedures and behaviors, improved maintenance or updates or upgrades to the physical facility,” Ms. Kim said.

“DPH works to provide education before enforcement and would not close a facility without the opportunity for them to reopen.”
Inspections have become more extensive and forward thinking, according to the DPH.

“The inspection process has evolved from a simple visual inspection at the time of the visit to a more comprehensive risk-based assessment of the facility,” Ms. Kim said.

“This approach involves not only observations at the time of inspection, but awareness of the flow of food through the establishment and the processes they use. This allows inspectors to evaluate the conditions at the time of the inspection but also to work with restaurant staff to help address concerns that could increase risk while processes or activities not under direct observation occur.”

Where to inspect

Potential and inherent food safety risks determine inspection schedules, DPH said. Frequency of actions is based on four established risk categories — very low risk, low risk, medium risk and high risk.

“The risk category for an establishment will determine the frequency of inspections,” Ms. Kim said. “Each month, our database will generate a due list of all establishment for that month for inspection.

“A follow-up re-inspection will incur if the establishment was cited for Priority or Priority Foundation (critical discrepancies) to check for compliance.

“It is not a pass/fail structure. The inspections are based on the Delaware Food Code, and violations are tiered as priority foundation, etc.”

More information is available in the Delaware Food Code posted online at regulations.delaware.gov.

Inspectors are required to have a science degree background in Life, Physical, or Health Science or related field, DPH said. Computer training administered through the Food and Drug Administration Office of Training and Education is part of the process.

After computer training, prospective inspectors observe 25 field inspections conducted by current staff. Another 25 inspections by the trainee is required, under official supervision.

Once those requirements are met, prospective inspectors are required to pass and obtain Servsafe Food Manager certification. Certification renewal is required every five years.

There are approximately 24 field inspectors overall in Delaware spread throughout offices in Kent, Sussex and New Castle to cover separate territories..

“We all eat out and our inspectors know how important their job is,” Ms. Kim.