Environmental health specialists: the salt of the earth

There are some good folks in state and local health departments throughout the world. Environmental heath specialists, public health inspectors, hygiene officers – whatever they might be called – are some of the most fun food safety nerds to hang out with. They’ve got a lot of street credibility, seeing more kitchens and food safety in action in a week than some researchers see in a career.

Delmarva now (of the Salmonella-famed Delmarva Peninsula) profiles how restaurant inspections have changed from visits focusing on broken tiles to teaching events and coaching visits. girl-food-temp

In Pocomoke City, at the Riverside Grill, Corey Reeves said her family-run restaurant welcomes visits from the health inspector, because they always teach her something. The restaurant, which opened in 2012, is owned by her parents, Mark and Leslie Reeves.

“Initially, you’re always nervous,” she said of a health inspection, “not because you’re doing anything wrong, but because the rules change constantly, as they should. The regulations change, the kind of bacteria they may be looking for each season. So that’s something new to learn about. It’s very informative.”

Gary Weber has owned Blue Dog restaurant in downtown Snow Hill for about five years.

“If they make their case and want something corrected, if there’s a need, then we correct it. Then they come back and follow up on it. They’re always very polite and very respectful of our business and our staff,” Weber said.

“But it keeps you on your toes,” he said, “and in the restaurants I’ve worked in, there’s a sense of pride if you can get 100 percent. Everybody strives for that. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t feel good about our health inspectors.”

Stu White has been with the health department for 18 years.

Today, inspectors are there not just to evaluate a facility, but to educate restaurant managers and staff. 

“If we ask that something be corrected, if there’s somebody who disagrees with what we’re talking about, then at that point, education thing comes in,” White said. “This is why we’re asking you to do it — not just because I want you to do it. There’s a specific reason. What you’re doing has the potential to make somebody sick.”

White said food safety regulations have evolved over time, under the leadership of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“Years ago, we would go in and look more at the physical facility — was the place clean? Are the walls smooth and easily cleanable?” he said. “We didn’t pay as much attention to food safety or food handling at the time.”

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is an associate professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.
  • Kim Svedberg, REHS/RS

    There is an amazing shift happening in environmental health to risk-based inspections. I’ve seen it in food and pool/spa inspections. Food: what are the risk factors that cause foodborne illness? 1) food from unapproved sources – e.g., mystery meat in the cooler with no invoice or USDA mark on the package, no shellfish tags for those oysters; 2) improper holding temperatures-e.g. cooked tofu improperly cooled and sitting at room temp; 3) improper cook and reheat temperatures – e.g., chicken cooked to 147F, chili not reheated to 165F; 4) contaminated food or food contact surfaces – e.g., pink sponge hair rollers sitting next to clean glasses; 5) poor employee hygiene – e.g., open exposed sore on inside of wrist while mixing salad with both arms (lettuce up to his elbows). Floors, walls and ceilings are important for general sanitation. But those risk factors must be eliminated.