Topeka The next time you get a fly in your soup or a hair in your salad, you might consider talking to the manager of the food establishment before calling the state health department, a state health department inspector said.
"Many times the circumstance that created the problem will no longer be there by the time an inspector can contact the person in charge," said Roger Ozias, a food and drug investigator who has done restaurant inspections in Lawrence since 1983.
"In general, though, there hasn't been a large number of problems in Lawrence," he said.
The Journal-World recently reviewed inspection reports on 228 Lawrence food establishments.
The records, which are kept by the state's Bureau of Food, Drug and Lodging, include public restaurants, private dining facilities, grocery store delicatessens, convenience stores and senior citizens meal sites.
The best possible inspection score is 100.
AT THE OTHER end of the scale, any score below a 70 means the establishment is asked to make immediate corrections or close voluntarily. If the restaurant does not close, the inspector will seek an order to shut it down until it comes into compliance.
However, Steve Paige, director of the state's Bureau of Food, Drug and Lodging, said a restaurant may be asked to close for one violation, if the violation is serious enough.
"If the establishment has no hot water, or if there's no refrigeration, it obviously cannot continue to operate until the problem has been taken care of," Paige said.
On each inspection form, the inspector may deduct points for several categories ranging from proper temperature of refigerators to clean food storage areas to the proper storage of toxic cleaning chemicals.
"Each violation may be just a few points but if it's serious enough, we may ask that they correct the problem," Paige said.
MOST INSPECTION scores for Lawrence establishments dropped from 1988, when inspection records last were reviewed by the Journal-World.
Paige and Ozias said lower scores may not necessarily mean food establishments are less sanitary.
"There are some good and some bad places," Ozias said. "We're looking a little harder than we have in the past, but it seems like many places may just be having bad days on the day that I go there."
Of Lawrence's 228 establishments, three are rated a "perfect" 100. Another 46 percent, or 104 establisments, had scores in the 90s; 39 percent, or 87, had scores in the 80s; 12 percent, or 29, had scores in the 70s; and less than one percent, one establishment, had a score below 70. Less than one percent, four, did not have records on file.
OZIAS SAID a score in the 80s or 90s is "not a bad score."
"A score in the mid- to low-70s or below may indicate that there are some problems that could require a long-term solution," he said.
He said an establishment that scores below 70 may make corrections while he is there to get its score up to acceptable state standards.
Ozias, who inspects six to eight restaurants a day, says inspections take 20 mintues to an hour, depending on the size of the establishment and the number of problems.
His area includes all of Douglas, and parts of Shawnee and Johnson counties.
By law, inspections must be done at least once a year.
Ozias and other inspectors for the state must each inspect 800 to 1,000 establishments per year, Paige said.
"We could always use more inspectors," he said.
HIRING FREEZES and state budget constraints, however, have shrunk the inspection staff in recent years, he said.
"The high numbers (of establishments) really prevent us from spending time with the managers and owners and explaining the proper procedures," Paige said.
"The time that we spend on inspections is also very minimal considering that many of the establishments are open 18 hours a day or more," he said.
Ozias recommends that customers confront the manager or owner of an establishment if a problem exists.
"It may take me a few days or weeks to get out there," he said.
However, he said the state follows up on complaint letters or telephone calls that it receives from the public.
PAIGE SAID that for the approximately 12,500 facilities licensed in Kansas at a given time, his agency receives a handful of complaints every week.
Ozias said the most common violations, such as not using ice scoops, unclean food storage areas and improper employee hair restraints, can be fixed with just a little work.
He said the most common pest problems are roaches in the summer and mice in the fall.
"We usually ask the establisment to take care of it with a professional exterminator," he said.
Ozias said he has received no recent complaints of insects, glass or other hazardous, foreign objects being mixed with food in Lawrence.
"It's been a long time since we've had anything major," Ozias said.
HE SAID the state has not fined, or asked any Lawrence restaurants to voluntarily close in two years.
For the most part, Ozias said Lawrence's restaurants are on par with those in the Kansas City area.
He said that as general rule, franchised establishments tend to score higher on health department inspections than establishments that are individually owned and operated.
"The large companies usually have some pretty strict rules of their own that the managers enforce most of the time," Ozias said. "It doesn't necessarily mean that they score any higher on any given day, but in general, the big companies do a little better."