Feeling hungry? Fortunately in our county, there is no shortage of restaurant options – from fast food, to fast casual to sit down. There are also meals being served every day at day care centers, hospitals, schools and other facilities. Ensuring the safety of the food being served is the responsibility of the 28 environmental health specialists in our Health Department’s Consumer Protection Program.
The county’s team of environmental health specialists inspect more than 3,300 permitted food establishments, including restaurants, public schools, day care centers and hospital kitchens in our county, as well as for the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church. The purpose of these inspections – not announced in advance – is to enforce county, state and federal food safety laws, codes and regulations.
All food establishments in Fairfax must have a certified food manager on-site during hours of operation. It is the role of the food manager to ensure practices are in place to prevent food-borne illness. During a food inspection, the environmental health specialist evaluates how food is prepared and monitors the temperature of food during cooking, holding and storing. The inspection also checks to ensure staff are practicing proper food handling techniques and maintaining health and hygiene. The overall condition of the equipment and physical facility are also evaluated.
Lois Maisel has been conducting food inspections for more than 10 years. During a recent inspection of a fast casual sushi restaurant in Springfield, Maisel entered the premises when doors opened promptly at 11 a.m. The kitchen staff was in in full swing preparing for the lunch rush.
“This is really the best time to see a restaurant in action,” said Maisel. “You want to ensure the staff are able to continue practicing food safety during their busiest times of the day.”
Maisel quickly scans the restaurant looking at overall cleanliness of the premises, if hand washing signs are posted by all sinks, and if food preparation surfaces are properly cleaned and sanitized. Lois pays particular attention to how staff are preparing and cooking food. Are food handlers wearing gloves? Are they washing hands and using paper towels to turn off the faucet so as not to re-contaminate hands? Are cooks using thermometers to ensure food is reaching proper internal temperatures to kill bacteria that can make people sick?
The refrigerated walk-in is inspected to ensure food is held at the correct temperature, use-by dates are clearly visible (generally within three days) and food items are stacked in such a way that meat products are placed below everything else. The manager is asked to find his “red folder” that contains the employee health policies that all employees must know.
As stipulated by health policies, food managers need to know what to do if an employee comes to work with yellow eyes or skin, is vomiting or has a sore throat with fever (send employee home). In addition, managers must know about the six most common diseases associated with food-borne illness and what to do if an employee is diagnosed with one. The diseases, E. coli, norovirus, salmonella, Shigella, hepatitis A and nontyphoidal salmonella, are most typically spread through unsafe food handling practices and must be reported to the Health Department.
“If violations are found during the inspection of a facility, an inspector will discuss these violations during the inspection with the certified food manager on duty,” said Maisel. “Sometimes these violations can be corrected onsite before the inspection is completed.”
However, some violations cannot be corrected at the time of the inspection and the inspector will perform a follow up inspection typically within 10 days to ensure the correction is made. If violations have not been corrected, the Health Department may take action to have the violations corrected, including closing the facility.
Curious about your favorite restaurant? The Virginia Department of Health posts all reports on restaurant inspections.
If you or someone you know experiences illness following a restaurant visit or see unsafe food handling practices, you can make a complaint by visiting the county’s complaint webpage. Complaints get forwarded to the Health Department’s Consumer Protection Program and are followed up by an environmental health specialist.
Skipping the restaurant and cooking at home? Know these four steps to food safety in your kitchen:
- Clean: Wash hands and utensils to avoid spreading bacteria when preparing food.
- Separate: Use different cutting boards for meat, poultry, seafood, and veggies
- Cook: You can’t tell it’s done by how it looks! Use a food thermometer.
- Chill: Keep the fridge at 40 °F or below to keep bacteria from growing.