As soon as anyone learns what Alisha Johnson does for a living, they almost immediately ask some variation of the same question: What restaurants should I avoid? Is [insert name of beloved greasy spoon] safe? Where shouldn't I eat lunch today?
"I get it all the time," says Johnson, who has spent nearly two years with the Missoula City-County Health Department conducting risk-based inspections of local restaurants. "My answer is simple: It's not our job to draw that line of where you should or shouldn't go. Our job is to educate and to regulate. We're a service to the public—to protect the public health and to help the restaurants be the best they can be. I tell people, if you want to come down here and look at the reports, you're welcome to do so. Judge for yourself."
We did exactly that. And we found Johnson makes an excellent point: Mainly, a lot more goes into Missoula's health inspection reports than a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down on your favorite eatery.
The Independent reviewed files on 227 local full-service restaurants, bars, groceries, bakeries and coffee shops. (We skipped coffee kiosks, temporary food vendors and manufacturers.) The review focused on the Health Department's searchable online database (available here), which details each restaurant and its violations dating from Oct. 1, 2008, to present. In instances where a restaurant accumulated a high number of violations, required a follow-up inspection or otherwise showed an anomaly in its online report, the Independent checked the establishment's extended history and each inspection's detailed notes in hardcopy files available at the Health Department's 301 W. Alder Street offices.
Overall, the review found only 15 percent of the establishments—or 34 of the 227—passed their most recent routine inspection without receiving at least one critical violation. The average number of critical violations came in at 3.1 per establishment, with one restaurant reaching a high of 12.
While those numbers may appear high, Johnson is quick to point out critical violations can be a misleading statistic.
"It is next to impossible to get away without a critical violation at a full-service restaurant," she explains. "I'm saying that not because the establishment is a poor operator, or because the food is unsafe. It's just that we conduct a risk-based assessment, and a full-service restaurant has a lot going on and more things that could go wrong."
Johnson says each inspection focuses on what's known as "The Big Five": inadequate cooking or holding temperatures, poor personal hygiene and handling, unsafe food sources, improper cleaning and sanitizing, and cross-contamination. In addition to these five main issues—known as "critical violations" on an inspection report—an inspector also looks for a series of lesser offenses that may not directly relate to food safety. All of this information gets noted and treated as a "snapshot" of the operation on that day. It also serves as a basis for teaching the establishment how to make improvements and avoid potential problems. Unlike a New York City health inspector, Johnson doesn't assign a letter grade to each inspection. Unlike Seattle, restaurants don't receive a final score to either tout or hide behind.
"We have operators who ask, 'Hey, what's my grade? Did I get an A? Did I get a high score?'" says Johnson. "It's more than a number. You'll see, a restaurant may only get one critical [violation], but if you read the report you may find it's actually quite a big deal."
In other words, you can't just microwave the data and serve up a list of safe and unsafe establishments. But you can learn a lot about what's going on in local restaurants—and how the Health Department deals with it—by reading the reports.
After a while, the majority of the inspection reports read like one long, nagging lecture from a concerned parent: wash your hands properly, don't leave food out, etc. Johnson and her three colleagues responsible for inspecting more than 1,400 local licensed establishments—that includes everything from public pools and trailer parks to full-service restaurants and the folks who hand out samples at Costco—would argue those hand-washing violations are vital to a safe establishment, but they hardly stand out.
Some reports, however, are immediately noticeable either for the number of violations or the nature of specific complaints.
Between September 2009 and January 2010, local health officials conducted nine different inspections at China Buffet on Brooks Street. The last four of those inspections followed an alleged incident on either Jan. 16 or Jan. 17, 2010, when, according to the Health Department report, five people sought medical attention for what St. Patrick Hospital doctors believed was a food-borne illness. "All complainants had identical symptoms and one commonality: a meal at China Buffet with sweet and sour chicken and noodles with vegetables," reads the file.
The possibility of a food-borne illness prompted health officials to inspect the restaurant on Jan. 20, and showed five critical violations. A report the following day turned up three similar offenses. In both inspections, notes indicate the sweet and sour chicken was not being cooled and reheated properly, a possible source of the food-borne illness. On Jan. 21, officials delivered China Buffet a "Notice of Violation," indicating it could be closed down. On Jan. 25, the restaurant voluntarily shut its doors for cleaning and on-site retraining with health officials rather than "initiating official closure procedures," according to the report.
The Independent asked for comment from management at China Buffet on three separate occasions—in person and over the phone—but they declined each time.
The restaurant's most recent routine inspection, which occurred June 1, 2010, showed no critical violations.
Denny's on Brooks Street also voluntarily closed earlier this year after a routine inspection turned up seven critical violations, including a series of problems with the general cleanliness of both the building and individual staff.
"Facility found in a filthy condition with drains completely plugged, plumbing leaking, long term build-up of food/grease on equipment, and general filth," reads the April 12 inspection report.
One critical violation noted the presentation of the restaurant's cooks.
"Staff must routinely bathe, be physically in a presentable condition and practice good personal hygiene including clean clothing when working with foods offered to the public," reads the report.
The problems lasted three weeks and required three different follow-up inspections, even after Denny's closed to address the issues. The first follow-up, on April 13, turned up the same number of critical violations—seven—and a similar scolding for continued plumbing problems. A second follow-up on April 26 once again decried "patchwork" fixes on the plumbing, but only listed four critical violations. Finally, a May 7 inspection that still noted standing wastewater in the kitchen—as well as five critical violations—referred to a planned long-term fix involving a licensed contractor.
"We have a structured regimen in place if there are ever any problems either with a corporate inspection or a city inspection," says Ty Swimley, a Denny's manager. "As far as I know, we took care of it, and I don't think we've had problems since then. I know our last corporate inspection was last month and we got a 96 percent."
By comparison, a Missoula health inspector visited the new DQ Grill and Chill on N. Reserve Street on June 28, 2010, and noted 10 critical violations. Among the problems listed in the report were a hand sink with no hot water, inadequate hand washing and a "small burger patty" with an internal temperature of 120.9 degrees Fahrenheit rather than the required 135 degrees. While the number of critical violations doubled those at China Buffet, and surpassed the number of violations at Denny's, the infractions were quickly corrected.
"It was our first health inspection report," says Kelly, a DQ manager who would only offer her first name. "There were some rules we didn't know about and we had some problems with our building. It was all fixed."
A follow-up inspection on July 20 showed four critical violations—Kelly remembers just three—with hand washing and hot water still making the list.
In general, the Health Department takes pride in its track record of educating restaurants and limiting repeat violations. Of the follow-up inspections noted in the Independent's review, 87 percent showed fewer critical violations than the routine inspection. In many cases, the first follow-up inspection showed no violations at all.
"Really, the majority of food establishments in Missoula do a really good job and, if you look at the history of inspection reports, they really do care," says Johnson. "You can see the critical violations go away or they're at least making a clear effort to fix things."
In the event that an establishment does not show improvement, the Health Department can impose a number of penalties. If a business requires continued inspections beyond its annual routine visit and a follow-up, it must pay a $165 fee for the second follow-up—as well as for any other inspection until the critical violations are addressed. Inspectors can also force staff and managers to attend the Health Department's quarterly ServSafe class, which costs $10 per person and covers all the basics of "The Big Five." In rare cases, according to Johnson, the department will deliver a "Notice of Violation" to repeat offenders. The notice reframes the history of violations at the establishment, offers a timeline for when the violations need to be corrected and warns an establishment of any fines or, in some cases, its possible closure.
"Most often we end up suggesting the class and that's all it takes," says Jeanna McPherson, another inspector who teaches ServSafe lessons with Johnson. "A lot of places don't understand what they're doing wrong, or insist what they're doing is fine, and I understand that. I worked in a restaurant [she bartended and waited tables in Havre while studying at Montana State University-Northern], and even though I washed my hands a lot—that's just how I was—I still made mistakes. I was proud that I could carry 10 glasses at once back to the bar with my fingers inside the glasses, then walk back with another glass for a customer without washing my hands. These people are trying to do the best job they can, and then they get hit...The class gives them a chance to step back and see the risk involved."
A few establishments take the initiative with training and retraining, rather than wait for the outcome of an inspection. The Good Food Store, for instance, started scheduling quarterly on-site classes for its staff earlier this year.
"It's working," says deli manager Rebecca Canfield-Perkowski. "Food safety is obviously very important to us, and we found that rather than conducting our own quarterly training sessions it made sense to have the Health Department come in and do it for us. They're the experts."
The grocery store hasn't been inspected yet this year, but its last inspection on March 9, 2009, showed two critical violations, including one for a beverage without a lid in the meat area (spill-resistant drinks are required).
Finn & Porter inside the Doubletree Hotel also schedules regular on-site training, although its latest round came under unfortunate circumstances. On July 16, 2009, 13 members of a conference group staying at the hotel reported "GI issues," according to Health Department documents, and had to be transported to the hospital. Management at the hotel complied with a full investigation and, while a July 17 inspection turned up eight critical violations, nothing in the report showed a conclusive link between the restaurant and the illness.
Nevertheless, the hotel took immediate steps to ensure staff was aware of proper procedures: Health Department records show an on-site ServSafe class was conducted July 30 at a cost of $400, and an on-site food handling class was held Aug. 21 at a cost of $225. In addition, executive chef Erin Crobar worked at stations throughout the kitchen and reported back to health inspectors with detailed questions about proper kitchen protocol, like whether plates could be wiped with olive oil for better presentation.
Dan Carlino, general manager at the Doubletree, declined to comment on the July incident, but did speak in general about the restaurant's dealings with the Health Department.
"We've always had a good relationship with the Heath Department, we still have a good relationship with the Health Department and we worked well with them last summer in a difficult situation," Carlino says. "They're thorough and they're fair. They do a good job with their on-site training, which we've been doing for years. They help make it a better restaurant, and I'm thankful for that."
A July 31 follow-up inspection showed just two critical violations at Finn & Porter—one dealing with proper use of gloves and the other with an errant ice scooper. There was no need for a follow-up.
Johnson and McPherson fear the "food cop" label for a reason: Not all reviews of the Health Department are filled with marshmallows and cherry pie.
On the record, every restaurant manager, chef, bartender or server we spoke with offered praise—some measured, some effusive—for the work done by local inspectors. The general refrain: Inspectors help customers feel more confident about eating out and, as Carlino noted, they help make each restaurant a safer place to eat. They'd rather deal with a diligent Health Department than the alternative.
Off the record, however, food industry workers delivered the same message with a caveat—inspectors can be condescending, unrealistic, contradicting, unfairly rigid and blow certain small issues completely out of proportion.
"They're like the mafia," said one manager at a local full-service restaurant who requested anonymity for obvious reasons. "They come in, spout off a bunch of problems—half of which are different than what they said the last time—but you do what they say so they leave you alone after the follow-up. The whole thing's a racket."
McPherson's not surprised to hear the criticism. As she puts it, some restaurant owners have been cooking and serving food for a lifetime; she's been an inspector for three years. Who is she to tell them how to conduct their business?
"Of course, there are always places that disagree with the job in theory, or people who think my job shouldn't exist," she says. "It's not necessarily comfortable going into someone else's place of business. But, really, my job is to keep people safe, and if I focus on that then the positives tend to outweigh the negatives."
Johnson has also heard the complaints, which is why she's quick to offer praise for restaurants that show improvement or a concerted effort toward safety. Many of her inspection reports start by complimenting certain aspects of a restaurant's operation before suggesting changes that will mitigate risk.
"I know where they're coming from in a lot of cases," says Johnson, who, like McPherson, used to work in the food service industry; she managed a café in New York. "This isn't easy, and I understand that it can be difficult to, say, wash your hands before changing gloves when you're in the middle of a major dinner rush. That's why we stress this is just a snapshot, and try to help operators understand what's at stake."
Johnson points to what sounds like a mundane critical violation to underline her point: proper hand washing. It appears in a majority of the inspection reports and can elicit a roll of the eyes from preoccupied staff, but it's a part of "The Big Five" for a reason.
"The number one individual cause of food-borne illness in the United States is not salmonella, it's not E. coli—it's norovirus," says Johnson. "Up to 40 percent of the cases are attributed to norovirus. That means it's not necessarily due to food, it's due to hand washing or touching an unclean surface. It's basically fecal-oral. It's gross, but it's as simple as not washing your hands after going to the bathroom. Sometimes, that's all it takes."
Digesting it all
Take a look at the 34 establishments that turned up no critical violations on their most recent routine inspection, and there's little common thread: Arby's on N. Reserve Street and Big Dipper Ice Cream; Zootown Brew and Tropical Smoothie Café; Doc's Sandwich Shop and Little Caesars on Brooks Street; the Missoula Club and Iza; Taco Bell on N. Reserve Street and Posh Chocolat, to name a few. Corporate franchises make the list alongside locally owned cafés, fast food chains on major thoroughfares receive high marks along with sit-down restaurants in downtown Missoula. There's no rhyme or reason—and the honor roll could change as soon as one of the locations comes due for its next inspection.
The randomness of the list points back to Johnson's initial point: To fully understand the safety of your favorite restaurant, you'd have to check its history and read the full inspection report. A simple list doesn't tell the full story.
"There are three main things I really would like to remind people about: We try to be an educator and a resource; each inspection is just a snapshot; and please read the full report," Johnson says. "Just because somebody has a bad inspection report doesn't mean they're an unsafe place. It just means that on that particular given day they needed to pay more attention to certain things.
"Anybody can have a bad day," she adds. "We're lucky that we live in a place where there are more good days than bad."
What else we found while going through hundreds of inspection report
If the main story didn’t preface this enough, it bears repeating: Inspections serve as only a “snapshot” of an establishment on any given day. It does not serve as a damning indictment of a restaurant’s food handling or a shining halo above a chef’s hat. People have off days. People have funny days. People have days that make us want to lose our lunch. Understanding that, here are direct quotes from real inspection reports: