Oklahoma City-County Health Inspector Jacob Custer washed his hands in preparation for a recent inspection at Lupe's Mexican Restaurant in Midwest City.
This is one of more than 10,000 inspections he and 16 other health inspectors perform yearly at nearly 5,000 eating establishments. More than 20,000 health code violations are found in a typical year, or about two per inspection.
Violations include not keeping food cold or hot enough, insect infestations or lack of cleanliness. The most serious concerns are problems that could cause foodborne illness. Other violations are minor and easily corrected.
Lupe's Mexican Restaurant owner Lupe Lovin has been dealing with health inspectors for 20 years now. Lovin said her establishment has been cited for minor violations in the past.
“Some little violations, but nothing major,” Lovin said. “Something we can fix when they're here. We don't ever make them come back.”
Lupe's Mexican Restaurant passed inspection.
“We didn't find any violations.” Custer said. “They did a good job.”
Lovin said she doesn't mind inspectors visiting her restaurant at any time of day.
“We don't care if it's the middle of lunch; it's in the evening or early in the morning,” Lupin said. “We're ready.”
Other restaurants did not fare as well. The most serious of violations are those that lead to the closure of a restaurant or an order requiring that the violations be corrected within 10 days. For example:
• Hunan Express was voluntarily closed due to numerous cross-contamination violations Nov. 28. The restaurant at 340 S Mustang, reopened after correcting the violations. Calls to the restaurant for comment were not returned.
• The Saigon Taipei Market, 1648 SW 89, closed its hot foods area on June 15 at the request of inspectors after a circuit breaker tripped five times during inspection, causing food warmers not to work. It reopened four days later. Calls to the restaurant for comment were not returned.
• The Sak-N-Go, 305 E Main in Jones was ordered to fix numerous priority violations within a 10-business day period of a May 10 inspection. Manager Ron Srestha said his establishment has fixed every violation.
“If we didn't, they would close us down,” Srestha said. “We haven't had any complaints since the health inspectors last visited. We're doing everything we can do.”
• Popeye's Chicken, 12401 N Pennsylvania, was ordered to fix numerous core and priority violations within a 10 business day period of its March 2 inspection in which it was cited for gnats in a walk-in cooler area and unclean food contact surfaces. Calls to the restaurant for comment were not returned.
The most serious problems inspectors find are those that could lead to foodborne illness, said city-county health department spokeswoman Vicki Monks.
In the 2012 fiscal year, which ended June 30, the department received 171 complaints of foodborne illness, but county officials were not able to confirm these complaints.
Other complaints from the public run the gamut from improper lighting covers, to a soil-like substance found on the floor, wall and ceilings of a restaurant to an allegation that employees dragged a deer into the back door of a restaurant kitchen (inspectors were unable to verify that claim).
Custer said inspectors don't make appointments for routine inspections.
“If violations occur, they are dealt with in a very timely manner to protect the public and to keep all restaurants safe,” he said.
“Depending on how the inspection goes, we will set a date for follow-up.”
Monks said the first thing inspectors do is when they come into an establishment is go to a sink — check the sink and then wash their own hands.
“Hand-washing is absolutely critical,” Monks said. “Hand washing sinks should be separate from any kind of food preparation sinks so no cross-contamination from during the preparation process.”
Custer said there are 58 violations for inspectors to consider.
“(Proper) temperatures are a major step in preventing bacteria from growing and illness from happening,” Custer said. “Handling the food in a clean way, keeping the facility clean are all important steps in keeping food safe and illnesses and outbreaks from happening.”
Custer said there are different steps an inspector takes, depending on the seriousness of the violation.
“If it is a violation that needs to be corrected immediately, and which we bring it to the management's attention, we will work with the person-in-charge until this violation is corrected before we leave,” Custer said.
“Other violations may take some time. We will set a date for the violation to be corrected, then follow up with the date and then follow up with any corrections they may have.”
Custer said for a restaurant to be closed down there must be an imminent public health situation.
“Voluntarily, we will ask restaurant to close down. Every time I've asked (a restaurant) to close down, they've agreed to close down until we get them up to code,” Custer said.
“It's not something we come and say ‘you're closed,' it's something we've asked the restaurant to close until this imminent health hazard's been resolved.”
Monks said that not all closed restaurants were unsafe restaurants.
“You can see a closure and it may have been something beyond the control of the owner,” she said.
Custer said the worst incident he ever saw as an inspector was a restaurant he had to close immediately because of a faulty walk-in cooler.
“The cooler hadn't been working for some time,” Custer said. “They were storing meat and other foods for prep. The smell of food that is out of temperature and sitting at room temperature can be a scary scene.”
Custer said that while he hasn't personally ever felt threatened while inspecting an establishment, the department has a policy in effect in case such an incident occurs.
“If we feel threatened we will leave an establishment,” Custer said. “We will return with a supervisor or law enforcement if necessary.”
Search inspection reports
The state maintains a website — Oklahoma Food Service Establishment Inspections — where restaurant inspection reports can be viewed. The most serious violations are highlighted in orange.