Andrew Stull walks into a downtown Lawrence restaurant. He looks like an ordinary customer dressed in khaki pants, brown shoes and a green-and-white striped shirt.
But he’s not.
He is one of two Douglas County environmental health specialists who help ensure that restaurants, schools and concessionaires are abiding by the Kansas Food Code, which is similar to the Food and Drug Administration’s Food Code.
Stull visits restaurants both randomly and announced, and he is there for either a routine inspection or to check out a consumer’s complaint.
Upon arrival, he asks for the person in charge and notifies him or her of the visit. Then the inspection begins. He carries a clipboard to make notes and wears a fanny pack full of tools: thermometers, camera, chlorine test strips, flashlight and antibacterial wipes.
After being turned down at one downtown restaurant, a manager at The Pita Pit, 1011 Mass., allowed a photographer and reporter to tag along during a routine inspection June 22.
Food temperatures, storage
During the approximately 45-minute, mid-afternoon inspection, Stull checked food on the bar and in the freezer and cooler. He used different thermometers to check the surface and internal temperatures of food. He also checked labels inside the cooler to make sure the food was being rotated and properly stored.
Stull said he often finds food that is not at the correct temperature. For example, he said raw meat needs to be stored at temperatures below 41 degrees and soups on a stove need to be at least 135 degrees.
“That’s one of the typical ones,” he said of violations he finds. “The equipment either isn’t working properly or they have it sitting out on the counter when they should have it in the cooler.”
Another problem he often sees is storing hot food too quickly. Stull said food should be cooled in two stages. Within two hours, employees should cool food to 70 degrees, and then in the next four hours it should be 41 degrees.
“A lot of times, they have a problem with that two-hour window because at that point, you have to do something with it. You have to put it on an ice bath. You have to put it into shallower pans. You can’t just put a lid on it and put it in the fridge. You have to do something to actively cool it down faster.”
Condensation on stored food can be a giveaway to improper cooling procedures, he said.
He found no problems with food storage or temperatures during his inspection at The Pita Pit.
Sanitation, food handling
Stull used a flashlight to look inside and under trash cans, cupboards and the soda fountain. He was checking to see whether employees used plastic gloves and paper towels to wash their hands and for any signs of pests.
He often witnesses employees who don’t wash their hands before handling food.
“Hand washing is a common problem,” he said. “Where they are sweeping the floor and then they go to make a sandwich and they don’t wash their hands before they put the gloves on to work with the food.”
The Pita Pit was given a critical mark during the inspection because an employee handled money and then put on plastic gloves without washing his hands.
“That’s kind of a big one that we see a lot,” Stull said.
The employee also was given a critical mark for having a drink above the food preparation area.
“You don’t want to store it above the food. You want to store it below the food,” Stull said, adding that there also should be a lid and straw.
The restaurant also was given two noncritical marks. One mark was for no paper towels in the food preparation or kitchen areas. Employees were using a towel to dry their hands. Stull said if food establishments use towels, then they should be used only once.
The Pita Pit managers did not return calls for comment on the inspection.
Stull said he isn’t out to get anybody. In fact, he sees himself as an educator first and then as an enforcer.
“You are not there all of the time. You are just really there to try to build a relationship with them to try to let them know that you have their best interest in mind,” Stull said.
The Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department’s goal is to visit food establishments at least twice a year even though state regulations just require an annual visit.
“That is, I think, that commitment we bring to the program,” said Dan Partridge, health department director. “The less frequently they see an inspector, the greater the risk of things going wrong.”
There are about 400 food establishments in Douglas County. During the past year, about 975 inspections were done. A routine inspection is done before a restaurant opens and then another one is completed within 45 days of opening.
The health department does not handle grocery stores, convenience stores or processing plants. Those are covered by the Kansas Department of Agriculture, which took over restaurant and lodging food inspections in 2008. The Douglas County health department is one of eight counties that has a contract with the Department of Agriculture to do food inspections.
Food establishments can be cited for two kinds of violations: critical and noncritical. Critical means the violation could lead to a food-borne illness.
“What we want is compliance,” Stull said. “If we find a critical item, they need to address that while we are there, immediately.”
If they have one that can’t be resolved immediately — for example, a broken cooler — then they are given 10 days to fix the problem and then the inspector returns.
Stull said if he finds six or more critical violations, he will revisit the site even if the problems are immediately resolved.
“That’s just showing that they need a lot more to work on and you need to come back in 10 days to make sure they are on their feet,” he said.
A business can be asked to close for a number of critical violations or just one, depending on the situation.
For example, it takes only one critical violation of roach infestation or no running water to shut a place down.
“A restaurant should not be operating if they don’t have water,” Stull said.
If a city water line breaks and it affects a business, the employees should notify the health department and temporarily close. That recently happened and one restaurant made the appropriate notification. Of course, this alerted food inspectors to the surrounding restaurants that were still operating.
Stull does not have the authority to close a business, so he calls officials with the Department of Agriculture who make the final decision.
In the past year, two restaurants were forced to temporarily close until they could resolve their violations.
Stull said each inspection is different because each business is different.
“Everything is really subject to circumstance,” he said. “It’s really just what the inspector sees.”
Most of the time, managers are receptive to making changes.
“They don’t want to lose business and they are going to want to comply with you. I have to be there. They just have to put up with me. But most of them, hopefully, will look to me as a learning tool and not as an adversary.”
Still, Stull runs into angry clients, especially when it comes to throwing away a lot of food. Stull said managers have argued that his thermometers were off. Some even missed seeing the small, white antibacterial wipe he used on a food thermometer and accused him of being unsanitary. Now he uses big, blue wipes.
If the health department receives a consumer complaint, food inspectors respond within 48 hours. Last year, there were 72 complaints.
“Those vary from dirty bathrooms to ‘I saw a roach’ or ‘my hamburger was undercooked.’ It’s all facets,” Stull said. “There are certain thresholds that people will take. Everyone’s a little different, but the public is our eyes and ears, too.”
If someone complains of sickness, inspectors respond within 24 hours. Stull estimates about half of the complaints are about sickness.
Dr. Lori Hougham, county health officer, said knowing whether someone is sick because of a food-borne illness or from being in contact with a contagious person is difficult. That’s because the symptoms — nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea and fever — are similar.
“The research says that anybody that has one to five episodes of diarrhea means it usually is from a food-borne illness,” Hougham said. “In most cases, the symptoms resolve quickly and you don’t have to do anything special.”
If symptoms last longer than 72 hours, an individual should seek medical help.
She said the ill effects of eating something bad can show up within minutes or it can take days. So it’s not necessarily the last food that someone ate.
“In general, treatment for food poisoning or diarrhea focuses mostly on supportive treatment, making sure that you are staying well hydrated,” Hougham said.
She said it is likely that a person will get a food-borne illness once every three to four years.