Jerry Caird was on his knees, peering under a shelving unit with a flashlight in the kitchen pantry at O’Malley’s Restaurant in Olympia, when he thought he saw something move.
Never mind, folks. It was only an onion peel.
For a few seconds, the Thurston County environmental health specialist said he thought it was something a little furrier.
“I have yet to see a live rat,” said Caird, who has conducted restaurant inspections for about 20 years. “I’ve seen signs of them (in other restaurants). You can see the nestings, the droppings. I’ve seen them in traps.”
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He is one of 6 inspectors who oversee more than 1,000 food establishments in Thurston County. That includes full-service restaurants, grocery store delis, fast food outlets and espresso stands.
“I’ve never worked in a restaurant in my entire life,” he said. “But I feel like I have.”
Instead, Caird has a bachelor of science in environmental health and extensive training on looking for food-related situations that can make people sick, such as room temperature potato salad, lettuce that’s contaminated with raw meat juice and workers who aren’t handling food safely.
He was an inspector for the state of Nevada for nine years, before taking a job with Thurston County 11 years ago.
“I think of myself as an advocate for public health,” he said.
Thurston County’s full-service and fast-food restaurants, along with its grocery store delis are inspected at least twice a year.
Cassie Andreotti, the manager at the Vic’s Pizzeria on Olympia’s west side, said she usually gets a little nervous when Caird shows up. But she said she appreciates the work he does.
“I think it’s incredibly important,” said Andreotti said during a recent inspection. “Without these guys, who knows what people would be serving.”
Businesses that only have a small amount of food preparation such as espresso stands, bakeries, meat markets and the non-deli sections of grocery stores are inspected once a year.
A typical inspection can take one to two hours, depending on the size of the kitchen.
“They’re all unannounced,” Caird said.
Most violations that are noted during an inspection are corrected immediately, said Sammy Berg, a senior environmental health specialist who supervises the county’s health inspectors.
“It’s not just to find people doing things wrong,” Caird said. “But to show them a better way that will help protect public health.”
Sometimes, an inspector will order a brief follow-up inspection, to verify that equipment was repaired, or if expired food handler cards are renewed. During 2014, the county’s inspectors conducted 50 of those types of visits.
“Every dog has its day,” Caird said. “I’ll go into an establishment that’s been 100 percent every time, and I’ll walk in and it’s falling to pieces.”
Caird said he tries to build a rapport with the owners and managers of the restaurants in his jurisdiction.
“They know they can call me anytime if they have any questions,” he said. “... A good part of it is education.”
Of course, there are days when Caird isn’t seen by everybody as the good guy. In fact, some might see him as a mean inspector who is trying to ruin their lives with nitpicky rules, embarrassing mistakes and big fines.
“They get frustrated sometimes,” he said. “They’re frustrated at themselves, and they can get heated.”
Caird said he can usually de-escalate a situation fairly quickly, and that he always tries to leave on a handshake.
“I don’t like leaving a hostile situation,” Caird said. “Argumentative? I can take that. It’s going to be part of my job.”
Instead of deciding to boycott a restaurant based on a bad inspection, Caird and Berg say consumers should look at a restaurant’s history. Does it have chronic problems, or has it been making improvements over time? Was the bad inspection more reflective of a bad day?
Berg said he likes to compare a bad inspection to a student receiving an F on a test. Does that mean he or she should be expelled from school?
Sometimes, restaurants with bad inspections are some of the safest because owners are on top of things, knowing they need to make changes, Caird said. Additional training or a change in management can make a huge difference in a follow-up inspection’s outcome, he said.
Each violation is worth 2 to 25 points, depending on the severity of the issue.
If an inspector identifies too many issues or repeat violations, a re-inspection will be ordered, Berg said. Restaurants that receive more than 45 points on “red” violations (problems that can directly lead to food-borne illness such as a worker not washing their hands) or 65 points during a visit will be fined $190, and a re-inspection will be ordered within 10 days.
In 2014, there were 16 re-inspections in the county.
If those problems aren’t fixed, the restaurant will be given a formal warning letter of closure. The biggest cause for those letters are failure to renew an annual permit with the county, Berg said.
Also, when a restaurant has ongoing problems or isn’t making improvements on its score over time, the county can call for an administrative hearing. A restaurant can be placed on probation for up to a year.
Full closures are rare, but they are ordered if “gross public health hazards” exist, Berg said.
Standing in wastewater
What was the most egregious case they’ve ever seen?
Berg said it involved a sushi restaurant that stayed open during major plumbing problem.
“They were prepping food and at the same time standing in wastewater (from the sink) that was backing up throughout the floor drains,” Berg said. The health department closed them down.
The department also shuts down restaurants that don’t renew their permit. In 2014, five restaurants were closed for this reason, and four reopened after paying the man.
Mom and pop businesses tend to struggle the most with food inspections, Berg said. One of the big reasons why is because a lot of fast food companies have their own corporate inspectors that are in charge of quality control, he added.
When problems are found, Caird said he tries to work with restaurant owners and managers to make sure there’s a pattern of improved scores.
“A lot of owners tend to focus on what the customer sees — the bathrooms, the dining rooms,” Caird said. “But they really should focus on the kitchen.”
Thurston County’s Environmental Health Division also tracks complaints that are emailed or telephoned in by consumers. The department had 226 complaints about restaurants in 2014.
Most of those were about possible food-borne illness that callers believed were picked up at local restaurants.
“The last thing you ate isn’t necessarily the thing that made you sick,” Berg said, adding that signs of a food borne illness can take 24 to 72 hours to appear.
If the department receives several phone calls that correlate to the same restaurant, they check it out.
Other complaints they hear from the public are about non-service dogs in grocery stores, sticky tables and unclean restaurants, and employees who aren’t washing their hands or are using their bare hands to touch food.
Sometimes, the department fields complaints that aren’t necessarily about food safety, such as a customer not liking the taste of their meal or that they thought the menu items were too expensive.
Those are complaints that are beyond the department’s control, Berg said.
Thurston County’s Environmental Health Division also investigates food borne illness outbreaks. In 2013, investigators were able to identify that the source of an E. coli contamination reported in Thurston and Clark counties. After some interviews with the victims, they were able to identify that they had all eaten at the same Fourth of July picnic.
That same year, county investigators also traced a case of botulism to some home-canned meat.
The department also conducts food-handler classes and issued 12,500 food-worker cards in 2013, the most recent year that those numbers were available.
Caird wears a small flashlight on his lanyard, and a larger one on a holster that hangs on his belt. Before he leaves the office, he reviews previous reports on the restaurants he’s heading out to inspect.
When he entered O’Malley’s Restaurant, he introduced himself, but it was more of a formality.
“Most know me already by the time I walk in,” Caird said.
He said he always begins by using the kitchen’s hand-washing sink. Does it have hot water and soap? Have people been cutting up vegetables in it?
“One of the things you’re taught is you look around while you’re washing your hands because they’re still fixing things they think need fixed,” Caird said.
He looks around for general cleanliness or clutter.
“If they’re cooking, I immediately look at their hands to see if they have gloves,” Caird said.
He carries a digital thermometer that’s used to record temperatures in appliances such as refrigerators and food warmers, and to verify that a restaurant’s thermometers are accurate.
On this particular day, he tested a few temperatures in the prep area, to make sure items, such as mayonnaise, are cold enough. He checked to see if the fryers were clean.
He examined the way food was organized in the walk-in cooler and looked under shelving units in the pantry.
“If the floor is dirty and there’s a bunch of food under it, that can attract bugs and rodents,” Berg said.
Caird examined the ice maker for mold and pink slime. The one at O’Malley’s wasn’t immaculate, but it also wasn’t nearly as bad as some of the ones he’s seen, Caird said.
“The part that scares me is all you can see is what you can see here,” he said, tapping on the top of the machine.
Next, he tested to make sure the restaurant’s dishwasher was heating to 180 degrees or is running sanitizer. He also peeked under a sink to make sure cleaning bottles are labeled properly.
He compared a restaurant’s work schedule with the food-handler cards they have on site. He quizzed kitchen manager Gorden Heathscott on some food safety issues, including the temperature that cooked chicken needs to reach before it can be served.
The restaurant’s overall inspection had 12 demerits (the maximum is 140). A few of those points were for using a standard refrigerator to store condiments, instead of a commercial-grade one.
Heathscott said he was OK with the inspection’s results. Like Andreotti, he said he believes Caird’s job is important for consumers and restaurant workers.
“He’s whipped me into shape,” Heathscott said, laughing.
Caird has a list of 50 items to check on each inspection report. Many of the food safety issues are tied to federal or state laws.
He said one of the favorite parts of his job is when he gets to share tips that he’s picked up at trainings or other restaurants that are useful for kitchen managers. Sometimes, people ask him how to use their new equipment.
Caird laughed when asked the No. 1 question on everyone’s minds: “I do eat out,” he said. “It’s just an ongoing question that people ask me all the time.”
Even though he likes to jokingly respond “not very often” to that question, Caird said the truth is he feels that his department is doing its job to keep dining out a safe experience in Thurston County. There are a lot of restaurants that work hard to receive perfect or near-perfect ratings, he said.
Besides, after working around great-smelling food all day, Caird said he’s usually very hungry.