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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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.

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"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.

Food fight

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."

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