Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Knock Knock. Who'se There? The Health Inspector.

 Every once and while I stumble upon something on the internet that holds my fascination far more than other sites: Facebook (the early years), YouTube (before the content providers exercised their licenses), Kazaa (before I really knew what a virus was), GrooveShark (seems too good to be true), and HotorNot.com (because it’s always fun to anonymously judge people) are some that come to mind. The District of Columbia Health Regulation and Licensing Administration Food Facility Inspections Online Database is another such website and a current mild obsession.

In short the website publishes every DC health inspection since 2007 searchable by establishment name. The DC Department of Health describes health inspections as a way to “ensure the food is being handled properly from preparation through serving” and making the inspections available online as a way for the public to become educated on the “perspective of safe food handling, or ‘food safety.’”  More importantly the reports provide a much appreciated time killer and read more like food tabloids than government documents. Anyone with an interest in food, a fan of Kitchen Nightmares, or someone who eats in the District of Columbia would find these reports interesting.

Health inspections can be either a Routine (random inspection, usually 2 per year), follow up (following up on a violation that required resolution in a given period of time) or Complaint (someone logged a complaint with the health inspector). The inspector will log every critical and non-critical violation they observe. If a restaurant has an accumulation of 6 or more critical violations that cannot be corrected on site during an inspection it will be ordered closed. Sadly, I have yet to come across a report where a restaurant was closed.

Most of the issues logged in the reports are minor and mundane (not wearing hair nets, not labeling containers, not storing rags in sanitized solution, etc) some of the issues can be quite serious and actually pose a health risk (improper food storage procedures and temperatures, unclean and unsanitary conditions, rodent and insect problems) and some are just funny (a guy at the Main Ave Seafood Wharf was scolded by the inspector for washing his hands in a bucket of ice instead of in a sink).

Both the amount of reports for a particular restaurant and the content of the reports, provide good insight into what is going on in the back of the house. The reports can gleam some insight into the management and attention to detail in the kitchen which can ultimately tell you something about the quality of food they are serving. For example, Komi has impeccable reports while a random sampling of any Chinese carryout place can be stomach churning.

Not to name names but during my wanderings I noticed a certain celebrity hamburger maker has quite the list of violations, there were rodent droppings in the kitchen counters of a certain hipster dancing ballroom, and a litany of pretty serious violations were observed at a the most popular African restaurant where you eat with your hands. Reading through the reports you will quickly discover that no one is safe, the US Department of Health Cafeteria had two violations during its last inspection.

A couple of tips if you are going to visit the health inspection database:
  • Search the keywords ‘carry out’ or ‘seafood.’ The Chinese-sub-fried chicken-seafood  carryout places are the most interesting reads
  • A report  marked ‘complaint’ or a ‘routine’ report which has a ‘follow up’ report within a week usually have some juicy violations
  • Don’t search your favorite restaurant, you never know what you may find, sometimes ignorance is bliss

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