When we’re hungry, we’re hungry — there’s no messing around.
That’s why we rely on restaurants to fill a wanderlust within our palate, whether we don’t feel like cooking or want to try something new.
But when walking into a restaurant, how often do we think about who’s preparing our meals?
Carson City Health and Human Services strives to keep Carson City and Douglas County healthy and safe from illnesses and other risks, including those serving the customer.
With the department looking to revamp its grading process and strategy when it comes to inspections, what does a food inspection entail for the region?
Different places, same office: Process in Carson City and Douglas County
During the Board of Health meeting in June, CCHHS reviewed the inspection process and conducted some reevaluations.
The current grading system for the counties is 37 years old, along with updated sections of the code. Over the years, some of the updates included how inspectors approach mobile units in town and how long the inspections should take at those particular establishments.
To local ordinances, both counties adopt Nevada’s state codes to follow basic food and safety, NRS 446.
However, in Douglas County, people are prohibited from opening a food truck business.
“It could be a population thing,” said Dustin Boothe, epidemiologist of CCHHS. “That’s why so many people apply to open up a food truck in Carson. There just isn’t a lot of business in Douglas.”
But Boothe said revamping the grading also gives an opportunity to enhance the statute by adding procedures for all types of establishments.
“The basics are in there but we want to locally update the code,” Boothe said. “We want to bring in some extra language to help let us in those businesses, such as food carts.”
The system is based off letters, such as an “AA” scoring 95 and above and “A,” scoring between 85-94. Boothe said grading is one of the aspects under consideration for change, specifically using a 10-point block system; every 10 points is a half letter grade.
Each establishment begins with 100 points for inspection.
For Carson City inspections of 2016, the department calculated 620 scored inspections, with an average score of 97, giving 86 percent of establishments an AA grade.
This is a common result for the area, Boothe said.
“Establishments are doing great on critical risk factors and decreasing chances of food borne illnesses,” he said. “We’re seeing good safety practices in our community.”
In a 2015 report compiled by the department, Carson City had 552 violations out of 685 inspections, while Douglas County, including the Stateline casino corridor, had 759 violations out of 617 inspections, due to point reduction in the hygiene-hand washing category.
Major violation poses a likely health hazard with immediate correction and may cause closure of the establishment.
The reevaluations will affect Carson City, but as for Douglas County, Boothe said that’s still under analysis.
Day in the Life of a Health Inspector
When Mike Oravetz walks into work, the first task is to print out a list of facilities due for an inspection.
Although his jurisdictions are in Stateline and he works Tuesdays through Fridays, he gets to decide which facility to inspect for the day.
He also keeps track of facilities with violations; this helps him plan his next unannounced visit to observe if the facility took action in improvements.
Facilities that are already marked with violations become a priority to inspect.
With three years of experience in the health service industry, Oravetz said some people mistake the purpose of an Environmental Health Specialist.
“The job of a health inspector is to protect public health,” Oravetz said. “It’s a pivotal role, we’re not there to close down places and give bad grades.”
Inspections occur every day and it’s not just at restaurants. The department also does routine checks on seasonal pools, schools, prisons, or respond to consumer complaints.
As for restaurants, inspections are only required once a year, unless it’s an establishment that serves raw and packaged meals.
“That also depends on the type of food they’re preparing and serving,” Boothe said. “Inspections could be up to two times per year. High risk establishments, such as sushi restaurants, need to be checked more than once because of the temperatures in the food.”
Before Oravetz, makes an appearance, he usually starts the day by logging on a database which generates which establishments need to be examined; that includes planning inspections a month ahead of time.
Inspectors also record how much how far they traveled for inspections, how long the inspection took, time and effort into programs, and complaints on billing.
Health inspectors routinely visit restaurants unannounced; appointments are only made when there’s construction or remodeling at the establishment.
Sometimes, inspections occur at night depending on the establishment’s hours of operation.
But Oravetz said the best time to pop in unexpectedly is during a rush hour where employees will be the most active.
“You have to catch them off guard at a busy time,” he said. “But we don’t want them to be afraid. We’re not here to deteriorate the business, we’re protecting the public health.”
Inside the inspection
Oravetz is at the The Oyster Bar at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Stateline.
Around 1 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, customers are sitting at the kitchen’s bar enjoying small snacks and meals, as servers and cooks keep operations under control.
The only tools Oravetz needs during inspections are a notepad, thermometer, and a tablet containing a database of the restaurant’s flow and food shipments.
“The safety starts at the slaughterhouse,” he said. “We have to ensure the meat is in temperature range for consumers, especially since it has been transported.”
But the very first thing Oravetz does when he enters a kitchen is wash his hands for 20 seconds.
Not only is washing his hands, but he’s also inspecting the temperature of the water and the quality of the sanitizer in sinks. All dishes are required to be cleaned in three sinks: wash, rinse and sanitized.
If applicable, dishwasher machines also are inspected.
When Oravetz runs his thermometer under the hot water, it reads 105 degrees. As for the sanitation levels, the test strip read between 200-400 — ideal results.
“If the levels of sanitation are too high, there are chemical contaminants,” he said.
Soap and napkin containers must be full at all times, but The Oyster bar was already ahead of the game in that element.
“Inspections are crucial for my employees,” said Hard Rock Casino’s Executive Chef, Wenceslao Sandoval. “It enhances their knowledge in health requirements. And if employees are sick, I don’t allow them to work until they have fully recovered.”
With that, Oravetz also observes how employees are using and discarding their gloves.
“Once they touch contaminated foods, they must discard and use a new pair,” he said. “Food is never to be touched with bare hands as this is how illnesses, such as the norovirus, can spread.”
Cleaning after each use, Oravetz also uses his thermometer to check food items in drawers, as it’s opened every two minutes. Fresh food must be below 41 degrees in the cooling stations, and hot items must be 135 degrees.
The Oyster Bar nailed it; employees also keep consistent track of temperatures on clipboard hanging on the wall.
“We cool our food right away,” Sandoval said. “You have to cool it in maximum of three hours.”
Anything outside of those temperature ranges must be discarded.
Then, it’s time to scan the walls, ceilings, and floors. Oravetz inspects for things such as sewage build-up in floor sinks, rodent droppings and insects, and exhaust vents for grease and fire hazards.
Droppings and sewage overflow will result in violation and temporary closure until abated, Oravetz said.
When Oravetz completes an inspection, he records the details.
The Oyster Bar passed with an AA grade. The only requirement the restaurant needs is a cutting board replacement, as it’s part of inspection procedure.
“Nobody is perfect and this is something that doesn’t deduct many points,” Oravetz said. “You have to be fair, firm, and consistent. As inspectors, it’s also important to set an example to employees and build good relationships, not bash them.”
What constitutes a passing grade?
“Currently, we determine grading points based on violations,” Boothe said. “We weigh that on critical versus non-critical violations.”
Boothe said there are 46 categories when it comes to determine violations, such as dumpster areas and good retail practices.
That includes clean walls, floors — anything that doesn’t attract pests.
Washoe County recently changed their grading system to a “conditional pass,” “pass,” or “close.” According to Boothe, Sacramento County in California does a similar procedure.
“They look at the number of critical factors to identify, rather than worrying about retail practices,” Boothe said. “But it’s important to focus on the retail practices as well. It’s about balance.”
To further promote establishments from food trucks to restaurants, CCHHS is planning to use a tool developed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, based off the Foodborne Illness Risk Factor form, to help with inspection procedures, Boothe said.
The form is broken up into two parts: good retail practices and critical violations. The data gathered from the form is contributed to FDA studies.
“It’s one thing we’re looking at so we can use the proper data and use it to develop,” he said. “Our current policy is similar but scattered. We want more tools as a resource to look at other aspects of our inspection process.”
During the meeting, Boothe also suggested to require at least one certified manager on the premises during inspection.
A certified manager will learn the basics of food safety, restaurant management, and encourage employees to follow healthy practices.
“There are five reasons for foodborne illnesses,” Oravetz said. “Obtaining food from a non-approved source, cross contamination, sick employees, inadequate cooking, and improper storage.”
Boothe said the position is a gold standard, as they’re expected to understand the aspects of a restaurant operation and go through food handler testing.
“They discuss how the employee needs to observe,” he said. “Then, they observe if employees are doing their job right.”
Each establishment has one certified food manager or food handler at a convenience store. But in Las Vegas, the inspectors check if managers have handler certification, as they’re tested for hepatitis and other infections.
To obtain that certification isn’t cheap, Boothe said.
But as an inspector, the potential changes will bring a positive change to the system overall, Oravetz said.
“Being a small health department is nimble and quick with work, and there’s less bureaucracy,” he said. “I think the changes are great and for newer inspectors, they will be more seasoned.”
Going forward with the transition, Oravetz said inspection reviews and grades will soon be posted on the CCHHS website with full public access.