February 26, 2013

Portland Restaurant Inspections

A friend texted me a link at an oddly early hour for such things: Portland Restaurant Inspections. This Portland Press Herald report is a list of recent restaurant inspections with the status of the inspection (pass or fail) and the date of the inspection(s).

Ever since then, I've been thinking about the list. (N.B.: I am going to say The List a lot, and I'm not referring to the one from Kennebunk.)

The list has 91 restaurants, some with multiple inspections, which is nowhere near the number of food service establishments in Portland. This list includes places from Dunkin' Donuts to Hugo's. If you think of every place that serves food in Portland (which legally has to include any place that serves alcohol), the numbers are close to mind-boggling.

So this eliminates the compulsion to check the list before deciding where to eat tonight - many places have not been inspected recently (the earliest inspection listed is February of 2011) and therefore are not included in this report.

But what of those that are included? If the establishment was inspected, failed, and never reinspected, how does that make you feel? Poor Nosh is left hanging with a 'Failed' status from August 22, 2011.

So let's take Nosh for example. Since the pass/fail/complaint status of each restaurant links to a PDF of the inspector's report, you can see what the specific violations are that led to a failed health inspection.

These standards come from the Maine Food Code, which is a beast of a document, and details everything from the materials to be used for the walls of food-prep areas during construction, to of course, the squickiest section of employee hygiene.

So Nosh failed this particular inspection due to improper tasting, eating, drinking habits, or tobacco use of employees, inadequate kitchen hand washing supplies, unsanitary food contact surfaces (the ice machine), and improper storage of chemical supplies.

Having worked in kitchens, I can tell you that these things are fairly common. A hand wash station that runs out of paper towels and is not restocked for a shift is out of compliance with the food code.

But read 'improper hand wash' and everyone thinks E.coli in the appetizers. That said, I don't think that this particular failed inspection is hurting Nosh's business. The sinister 'improper employee drinking habits' violation was fixed while the inspector was still there - employee drinks just need to have lids on them and not be kept on a workstation.

But would you decline to visit a restaurant because the ice bin doesn't have a "proper air gap" or because the trash cans in the women's room don't have lids? Both of these violations contributed to Nosh's failed health inspection.

But some inspection histories tell a more damning story - check out the Porthole's list:
8/18/12    Failed
8/19/12    Passed
9/13/12    Complaint
9/13/12    Imminent Health Hazard
9/13/12    Failed
9/14/12    Failed
9/15/12    Passed

The complaint listed is some poor employee beseeching the city to come address the rat infestation and dangerous food handling practices. It's hard to believe the restaurant was cleared to open two days later after the litany of violations, but we now know that the place closed and never reopened.

So great, the health inspection process worked to shutter a place that was apparently a great public health hazard. But, um, how many times did I eat there before it was inspected?!? (Many.)

This rabbit hole of paranoia can lead to a total avoidance of eating out. But ever since I heard about a middle school acquaintance putting Ex-Lax in a pizza at work (and fired for it, fortunately), I've considered the trust that is implicit in going out to eat.

So what is the role of restaurant health inspections? It would be great if every food service establishment were inspected frequently and up to code. But with one health inspector for the entire state, that's not happening.

I'd like to say I'm not going to consider this list at all. But there are some reports that mesh with what you see in the restaurant - and that may give you pause when picking up a menu. I mean, yes, I know I should probably not be ordering a ham Italian from my neighborhood gas station, where the cashier doesn't stop to wash her hands before heading behind the deli counter.

But truthfully, it's probably not going to change my dining habits all that much. I'm going to continue to believe that the pride many Portland chefs take in their work will translate to clean kitchens where it really matters.