The Clark County Combined Health District performs more than 2,100 inspections of restaurants, school kitchens and other food providers a year.
The local agency’s goal is to prevent food-borne illnesses that can lead to serious health problems for people dining out at local eateries or grabbing a meal in a cafeteria. Food-borne diseases cause about 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,200 deaths nationwide each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Most cases of food-borne illness can be prevented through education on proper cooking or processing of foods to destroy bacteria, according to the health district.
During its last yearlong license period, the Clark County Combined Health District checked out more than 600 facilities and found more than 4,100 violations of the Ohio Uniform Food Safety Code.
A review of the Clark County health inspection data the Springfield News-Sun revealed that many of the offenses found include improper hand-washing or cleanliness issues like food improperly stored or utensils not properly cleaned of food.
The top violations found were the contamination of equipment, food-contact surfaces, nonfood-contact surfaces and utensils by either dust, dirt, food residue or other debris.
“Those are exactly the major types of repeat violations that we see,” said Larry Shaffer, director of Environmental Health at the district. “It’s not that places don’t clean, it just becomes the issue of they do not clean thorough enough.”
What is an inspection?
The health district inspects and licenses a wide range of retail entities, including food trucks, but it doesn’t cover wholesale businesses or a few other exemptions. Those include bed and breakfasts.
“If you retail food in Ohio you do need a license and will be inspected.” Shaffer said. “But there is a list of exemptions and also something called the Amish Exemption. The Amish like to serve meals to people in their community. So, there is a rule that was sort of result of the Amish — you can sell 115 meals a week out of your home, but if you go up to 116 you will need a license.”
Clark County businesses are usually inspected once every six months. If a violation is found, the district will follow-up within 30 days, sometimes the next day.
Critical violations are often corrected on the spot. Time is typically provided to fix other problems. There are no fines, but health officials can threaten to suspend or revoke licenses to operate.
The health inspection reports are public record, but a lot of consumers aren’t aware that they can contact the local health department to get these reports. The News-Sun also will begin publishing the inspection reports on a regular basis in the Local section and will be online at SpringfieldNewsSun.com, starting today.
DeWitt has seen violations at some restaurants with food spills and clean dishes that have been stored on the floor, as well as dirty dishes with food on the back stacked in with clean dishes.
Serious health violations like these — and other violations that are considered minor — are usually corrected immediately, she said.
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“We want to work together and most owners want to get things corrected,” DeWitt said. “Nobody is out trying to make people sick. People generally cooperate and things are fixed right away on the spot.”
The National Restaurant Association offers online courses called Serv-Safe that help educate food handlers on safety and other issued. Ohio requires one staff member on the clock at a venue to have completed the first level of the course.
“It is more like educating people on what they need to do in order to fix something or prevent violations,” Shaffer explained. “We want to help the business owners so they can be successful. We want to work together and not tear a business down, but help it fix any problems.”
In the kitchen
The News-Sun followed Shaffer and Health Inspector Elizabeth DeWitt during a recent inspection at A Slice of Heaven pizzeria in Enon. The inspections follow the state food safety code.
One section of the code deals with personal hygiene, illness and employee health. Another section focuses on the food — where the food comes from, where it’s stored, if it’s cooked at the right temperature and how it’s protected from contamination.
DeWitt was busy with a food thermometer at the pizzeria checking on all of the above while Shaffer sought out any and all “wash hands before going back to work” signs.
“The signage has to be up that says something about making sure you wash your hands as an employee,” Shaffer said.
DeWitt looked for items like sliced tomatoes, cold cuts and meat products in general. Once food products have been opened or cut up, they have to be stored below 41 degrees, she said. They also have a seven-day expiration date and need to be marked and stored properly so they don’t contaminate each other.
“It only takes one raw chicken dripping on the lettuce,” Shaffer said. “It could make 100 or more people ill easily.”
DeWitt also checked the bathrooms, and then searches the sit-down eating area for any signs of bugs or rodents. The Dumpsters are checked to make sure the trash has been taken out, picked up and the receptacles are preferred to be sloped.
“It sounds weird to pay so much attention to where the trash is being taken out,” she said. “But that is where a lot of problems can happen and you do not want to see what is possibly nesting in those Dumpsters ending up in the restaurant or cafeteria that is serving food.”
Shaffer called A Slice of Heaven a very good restaurant that hasn’t been flagged for any critical violations and noted the busy lunchtime crowd as an example of that.
A Slice of Heaven Manager Tyler Couch and two employees stayed busy during the inspection.
When DeWitt completed, she shared with Couch that she observed food splatter on the side of the pizza-making table and walls, mops hanging next to the clean portion of the three-bay sink, wall covering coming off under the sink and under the customer counter going into the kitchen — all minor violations.
The pizzeria was found to have only one critical violation — cleaning and sanitizing solutions stored above the three-bay sink.
“They corrected that during the visit,” DeWitt said. “And they had a plan to fix everything else.”
The inspections are good for all retail food vendors and businesses, Couch said, because it’s important to be safe when serving the public.
“We are always going to make our place clean and safe and serve good food,” he said. “We will fix whatever we need to.”