How Safe is Your Food? 

The Indy reviewed health inspection reports for more than 225 local establishments to find the answer.

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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.

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"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."

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