MICHIGAN: Handwashing, temperature storage key to keeping foods safe
Posted: July 31st, 2011 - 1:38pm
This is part of a Chronicle series on Muskegon County health department inspection records from 2007-10. Click here to follow the entire series.
Not all food code violations are created equal.
Restaurants, and other food servers, such as schools, hospitals and concession stands were cited at least 22,232 times for violating the food code between 2007 and 2010, according to a Chronicle analysis of health department data. Thirty-seven percent of those violations were deemed “critical,” meaning they carry a greater chance of making the public sick.
Some of those violations, such as grime that builds up along kitchen floors or bathrooms that lack signs telling employees to wash their hands, don't pose a direct risk to public health.
Others, such as employees who don't properly wash their hands, or foods that aren't held at the proper temperature, can impact food safety.
If a restaurant has been cited for serious violations, it doesn't mean contaminated food is being served, said Ken Kraus, director of Public Health-Muskegon County.
However, avoiding violations is one step in preventing foodborne illness, Kraus said. One in six Americans suffer from foodborne illness each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“These are cautions and … practices along the way to do the best you can to assure that what you're providing people is going to be safe,” Kraus said.
To focus on the most troublesome violations, The Chronicle examined violations that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers the most serious: keeping food at unsafe temperatures, failing to keep food contact surfaces properly cleaned, employees who exhibit poor personal hygiene, food obtained from unsafe sources, and improper cooking times and temperatures.
Not included in the Chronicle's analysis: records from nearly 2,000 follow-up inspections. In many of those inspections, the violations were found to have been corrected. But in some, the violations were still present — meaning some establishments had even more violations than The Chronicle counted.
When food hits what health experts call the temperature danger zone, between 41 degrees and 135 degrees, illness-inducing micro-organisms can grow and multiply, sometimes at an alarming rate. Bacteria growth only gets worse the longer food is held at those temperatures.
Between 2007 and 2010, establishments in Muskegon County were citied 1,192 times for violations that included holding food at unsafe temperatures, according to a Chronicle analysis of health department data.
Dr. Ben Chapman, an assistant professor and food safety expert at North Carolina State University, said violations involving pests might be gross, but he's more worried about repeat violations in areas such as proper cooking and holding temperatures.
“If a restaurant can't demonstrate to an inspector on two or three or five visits that they know how to cook a burger correctly or they know how to handle food at the right temperature, as a consumer, I'm less likely to eat there,” he said.
One instance where food being kept at improper temperatures in Muskegon County resulted in foodborne illness occurred in January 2008.
At least 40 people became ill with diarrhea and stomach cramps after eating chili prepared at American Legion Post 69 in Whitehall. Some people reported vomiting and a few said they suffered from symptoms such as fever, chills, body aches and nausea.
A health department report shows that the outbreak was caused by an “organism most likely introduced into the chili at some point after cooking during the cooling process by a food worker who did not practice proper hygiene,” and the chili wasn't properly cooled.
Because the food was improperly cooled, meaning it spent too much time in the temperature danger zone, the ideal environment was created “for this organism to multiply to unsafe levels,” the report said.