Lifting the steam pan lid, Yvonne Rodriguez takes her thermometer, cleans it with a sanitary wipe and slides it into the mashed potatoes. She checks the temperature in two or three more places and makes a note on a form, neatly held by her metal clipboard.
That is an alarm bell for anyone interested in food safety because food held between 40 and 140 degrees is a breeding playground for a host of foodborne illnesses. Rodriguez is one of a dozen inspectors who perform about 13,500 inspections and re-inspections annually for the Metro Public Health Department, under contract for the state.
Shelf-life and temperature are renewed points of emphasis for the Tennessee State Department of Health’s restaurant inspection program, which underwent a significant overhaul last year for the first time since 1978.
The onus is clearly on the restaurants to do the right thing, day in and day out, making the health department simply the second line of defense in the battle for food safety.
It’s not a battle. It’s an arrangement of mutual respect where humans respect the toll microbes can carry and the bugs know the humans can be smart.
In Tennessee it remains difficult for everyday diners to make informed decisions on food safety. Even with online databases and a new mobile app created by the State Health Department, information about many scores and violations is more than nine months out of date because of data glitches that still aren’t resolved.
The state of Tennessee took an awfully long time to catch up with the rest of the country on restaurant inspections. It only began using the 2009 FDA Food Code guidelines on July 1, 2015.
“Tennessee was one of the last states to adopt the new regulations,” says Hugh Atkins, director of Environmental Health for the state, noting that a significant overhaul of the program had not happened in almost 40 years.
I prefer this song about Tennessee.