Lily Altavena of the Phoenix New Times recounts the crap that health inspectors can face.
On a Friday afternoon in May 2014, Maricopa County health inspector Jessica Reighard entered the kitchen of Wahsun, a popular Chinese restaurant in Phoenix, and found a man cleaning furiously.
Health code violations stacked up quickly as Reighard gazed around the room. Food sat out on the kitchen’s dirty counters and the ceiling was “black with dust,” according to an internal report she would later file with supervisors.
The restaurant’s biggest problem was refrigeration. None of the coolers, the inspector wrote, kept food at the proper temperature. She began explaining to the married couple who owned the restaurant why she had to suspend their permit, temporarily closing the restaurant.
This was when the yelling started.
Over and over, Reighard wrote, Yit Kiu Szeto yelled, “Easy, easy, be happy! Just close us if you are going to close us, and be happy!” The inspector asked if she could please finish speaking.
Szeto’s wife, Chao Xie, now yelling with her husband, lunged at the inspector. The couple shouted profanities and wagged their fingers; the man even poked Reighard in the face a few times, the inspector detailed in her report.
While she dialed 911, the man picked up what the inspector would later identify as “possibly a meat tenderizer” and slammed it into a stainless steel prep table twice.
Then he swung it toward the inspector, missing her by just a few inches, according to a police report. Reighard ran out of the restaurant, leaving her computer and phone behind.
A criminal case against Szeto would drag on until February 2016, almost two years after the original incident. In a plea agreement, Szeto pleaded no contest to one count of disorderly conduct, a charge downgraded from aggravated assault. He declined comment for this story through his wife, on the advice of legal counsel.
The health inspector is a much-maligned figure in the restaurant industry. From the restaurateur’s perspective, too often inspectors are out to get the little guy, stomping into their businesses with a clipboard, looking to regulate anything and everything in their sacred kitchens. But internal documents obtained by New Times in a public records request reveal that Maricopa County health inspectors do not have an easy job. They’re facing stressed-out restaurant owners, who often panic when written up for health-code violations, often posted online for the public to judge. And owners don’t always take the news well. In the past few years, inspectors have been screamed at, demeaned, and even backhanded.
These are the stories missing from the inspection reports you can read online — instead, they’re detailed in internal documents the department calls “near-miss reports.” The National Safety Council — a nonprofit organization advocating for worker safety — recommends the near-miss system as a way for workplaces to document events that don’t result in a worker’s injury, but could have.
The full story recounts details all too familiar to front-line inspectors.