HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WAFF) - Every Friday, WAFF 48 brings you Kitchen Cops reports from all across north Alabama. We work with the health departments in eight Alabama counties (six weekly, two monthly) to compile these reports for you. We hope to make you an informed consumer, letting you know about problems at local restaurants that can guide you as you decide where to eat.
When we post our Kitchen Cops stories on social media, we frequently get questions about scores and inspection reports. Often, you wonder why one restaurant gets a low score for what seems like a minor problem and another restaurant with rats or roaches might get a score above 90. Other times, you ask why some infractions are written up at all.
We took your questions to Cheryl Clay, the Public Health Environmental Supervisor at the Madison County Health Department. She spoke with us for 15 minutes about the things she’s seen over her career and says every thing you see in the Kitchen Cops reports serves a purpose. Check out her full interview below.
“The main reason we do that, really the only reason, is to prevent food borne illness outbreaks.” Clay told us. “Why do we put a score up? That’s not for us, that’s to notify the public that hey this place may be having a problems right now, and that’s for you to make an informed decision about whether that’s a place that you want to eat.”
We went over some of the most common things we see in the health reports, starting with the scoring system itself. “When we walk in, everybody starts at 100, and as we start finding violations we start debiting points off.” Clay told us. “So, having insects present is a 4 point violation, whereas a temperature violation is a 5 point violation. So why is one four points and one is five points? It’s been shown that you have more food borne illness problems with a temperature violation than you do with the presence of insects.”
Clay told us the most common violations stem from ice machines and soda and tea nozzles. "Ice machines are a very wet environment, they can get dirty inside just from debris in the air. If you're frying chicken or baking you're going to have flour in the air with yeast and it's going to make it's way to the ice machine, then you add all that warm moisture in there and you have an environment where bacteria can proliferate." She sent us some pictures from actual Madison County inspections showing just how gross these machines and nozzles can get. Clay says tea machines are especially prone to problems because of the high sugar content in sweet tea.
We also brought up several things we've seen in reports that may seem minor at first, until you consider what impact they have on your food. For example, dumping mop water out in the parking lot. This is a violation for several reasons. Not only does it mean customers can potentially track the dirt right back inside the building, but the food debris in the mop water can attract pests.
Cracked food storage bins can create two very different and serious issues. First, they'd allow dirt, dust and airborne particles to get inside the bin. Secondly, plastic from the cracks can get inside the food and potentially cause serious internal injuries if eaten. There's a similar problem with metal bits that come off of old and frayed fryer baskets and spatulas.
We asked Cheryl about dishes and utensils. She told us that cleaning these isn't as simple as tossing things in your home dishwasher. Each must be fully sanitized, either by hand in a 3 compartment sink, or in an industrial machine that meets certain standards in temperature and sanitizer content. "Think about when you go out to eat. That fork has been in thousands of people's mouth, so you would like to make sure that gets properly cleaned and sanitized, all bacteria removed." Clay said.
Believe it or not, Clay says that the biggest threat inside a kitchen isn’t a rat or a roach or even dirty plates... it’s the human beings preparing the food. “The biggest contributor to food borne illness is sick employees coming in to work.” Clay says recent outbreaks of Norovirus on cruise ships are a microcosm of how fast disease can spread from contaminated foods. She says restaurants have rules in place saying employers must tell sick employees to stay home.
Clay says restaurants are routinely inspected, with problematic businesses seeing frequent followup inspections. You can also contact the health department at any time if you see something that you feel they need to know about.