Every day, Judy Kitchen and her four colleagues fan out across Benton and Franklin counties.
Armed with thermometers, heat-sensitive sensor strips and a deep understanding of kitchen hygiene, the Benton-Franklin Health District’s small team of restaurant inspectors is the region’s first line of defense against food-borne illnesses.
It’s a 364-day-a-year operation. Christmas is the only inspection-free day.
The health department reviews more than 1,000 licensed food service operations. Any entity that sells food for retail, even a gallon of milk, is inspected, as are the 232 (and counting) licensed food trucks.
Food service operators are inspected up to three times annually. The more complex the cooking, the more frequent the inspections.
The health department also responds to customer and occasional employee complaints. Hair in food and animals that may or may not be lawful service animals in grocery stores are common complaints. It occasionally fields complaints about poor customer service, but that is beyond its jurisdiction.
Beginning July 3, the Tri-City Herald will regularly publish restaurant inspection results, emphasizing those whose scores mandate a re-inspection. It will identify establishments by name, address and the number of findings.
Restaurant inspections are subject to the Washington Public Records Act and may be reviewed at the health department’s Kennewick office. General results are posted on the department’s website.
Jessica Davis, an 11-year inspector who was recently promoted to supervisor, and Kitchen, a 14-year inspector with a medical background, sat down with the Herald to share what goes into an inspection.
Isidro Ortiz, president of Pasco-based Fiesta Mexican Restaurant Inc., invited the Herald to accompany Kitchen during a routine inspection of the Gage Boulevard location in Kennewick.
With his mother, Teresa Ortiz, he operates two Fiesta locations. It has never been linked to food-borne illness in its 15-year history and he aims to keep it that way. He credits a strong working relationship with the health department for keeping the focus on food safety.
“They’re there to help me out. That’s the way I see it. We work together to prevent anything from happening in the future,” Ortiz said.
Kitchen’s visit to Fiesta begins about 2:30 in the afternoon. It’s the slow period between lunch and dinner. There’s a smattering of diners ordering late lunches. A few more are gathered in the bar, watching sports on television over margaritas and bar snacks.
She’s greeted by manager Edgar Velasquez and heads to the kitchen. Her first stop is the kitchen sink. She washes her own hands and checks to see if soap and towels are properly stocked.
Over the course of an hour, she will observe Fiesta’s chefs, quizzing them about how they handle food (utensils or gloved hands). She steps into the refrigerator, where she spots eggs, a raw animal product, stored above produce — a no-no.
When she’s satisfied with the kitchen, she turns her attention to the bar. The new bartender aces her questions about how and where he washes his hands, how he handles garnishes for drinks (with tongs) and how he handles ice (with a scoop that rests in a holder).
The bartender has a question. His new food worker card says Walla Walla County because he lives in Burbank. Is that OK? A legitimate card from any Washington county is fine, she assures him.
The business manager brings out a work schedule and a flip book with 20 or so food worker cards. There’s a current card on file for every employee. Satisfied, Kitchen and Velasquez sit at a bar table to discuss operations. She asks about Fiesta’s sick worker policy and reviews the extensive menu.
She inquires about potentially risky dishes such as ceviche — raw shrimp “cooked” in lime juice.
Velasquez smiles. Lime-cooked shrimp is a personal favorite, but Fiesta doesn’t serve it.
“Too risky,” he said.
Fiesta receives a score of 30. It’s a solid score, but above the 25-point level that triggers an automatic re-inspection. There are several missteps, including a failed performance by the bar’s dishwashing machine. A temperature strip fails to fully turn black, meaning it didn’t reach the 160-degree minimum temperature to sanitize bar ware. The machine in the kitchen passed with ease.
Ortiz, the owner, is circumspect. Fiesta leases its dishwashers from a restaurant supplier and they’re regularly serviced. The problem machine is adjusted within a day. The failed inspection was a bit of bad luck.
“That’s what the partnership is all about,” he said.
Strict interpretation of rules
Inspectors have at a minimum a bachelor’s degree in a scientific field, and receive extensive training once they’re hired.
The entire Benton-Franklin team has passed the Certified Food Safety Program and is qualified to lead “ServSafe” safety courses for food safety workers.
Like most states, Washington bases its food code on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Model Food Code, covering topics from handwashing to how ingredients are positioned in coolers.
Inspectors arrive unannounced, armed with a report form that scores establishments in 50 areas. Of those, 27 are considered critical, or “red.” If a restaurant can’t produce a valid food worker card for all employees, it receives five red points.
An ill worker present in the kitchen is more serious — 25 points. Failure to wash hands is another major violation, as is keeping foods at unsafe temperatures.
The final score ranges from a perfect zero to an alarming 418. Anything above 25 triggers an automatic re-inspection. The more severe the problems, the quicker the re-inspection.
Davis and Kitchen say they do their best to keep subjective opinions out of inspections by sticking to a strict interpretation of the rules.
There’s little room for disagreement when it comes to temperatures.
Inspectors look for dedicated handwashing sinks in every food preparation area. They attach temperature strips to dishes, and run them through an establishment’s dishwasher. The strips turn black when the temperature reaches 160 and stay white if they don’t. In the Fiesta bar dishwasher, the strip turned black around the edges but not in the middle.
Violations with the greatest potential to spread disease get the most attention, Davis said.
A restaurant can fail on the food worker card check if even one employee’s card is missing or expired. She’s less interested in that than in flagrant issues.
“If I see you flipping tortillas with your bare hands, you’re going to get a follow up,” she said.
Operators can appeal results to the Benton County health officer, Dr. Amy Person. Complaints are common. Formal appeals are not.
None of the establishments inspected during a recent week in June received scores of more than 100, though many triggered the automatic re-inspection threshold of 25 points. Perfect scores are common.
The health district offers extensive information about its programs and how it operates on its website. Go to bit.ly/BentonFranklinRestaurants
Restaurant inspection results
The following are results for operators inspected the week of June 13 that received scores of 25 or above. Red means serious infractions, blue means lesser violations.
▪ Mongolian Pho, 2607 W. Kennewick Ave., Kennewick, June 15: Routine check (25 red, 0 blue)
▪ Viera’s Bakery II, 6411 Burden Blvd., Pasco, June 15: Routine check (25 red, 0 blue)
▪ Three Margaritas, 627 Jadwin, Richland, June 14: Routine check (15 red, 10 blue)
▪ Juanita’s Foods LLC, 1620 W. Clark, Pasco, June 14: Follow up (0 red, 2 blue)
▪ Carneceria Las Mas Barata, 214 N. 4th, Pasco, June 14: Follow up (25 red, 0 blue)
▪ Don Antonio Mexican Restaurant, 528 W. Clark, Pasco, June 20: Follow up, (35 red, 0 blue)
▪ La Posada, 3150 W. Clearwater Ave., Kennewick, June 16: Routine (40 red, 8 blue)
▪ Yokes Deli, 1410 W. 27th Ave., Kennewick, June 20: Routine (40 red, 0 blue)
▪ Costa Vida, 95 Gage Blvd., Richland, June 21: Routine (50 red, 2 blue)
▪ Taqueria La Esperanza #22, 1427 N. 4th Ave., Pasco, June 22: Routine (80 red, 0 blue)
▪ Taqueria La Esperanza, 1427 N. 4th, Pasco, June 24: Follow up (40 red, 0 blue)
▪ Carniceria Los Toreros, 2115 E. Lewis, Pasco, June 14: Follow up (55 red, 0 blue)
▪ Ethos Trattoria, 800 Dalton St., Richland, June 15: Routine (55 red, 3 blue)
▪ Fat Olives, 255 Williams, Richland, June 21: Routine (65 red, 0 blue)
▪ Rosy’s 50’s Diner, 403 Bradley, Richland, June 21: Routine (25 red, 10 blue)
▪ Jack in the Box #8327, 49 Columbia Point, Richland, June 22: Routine (50 red, 0 blue)
▪ Albertson’s #228 Deli, 1330 N. 20th, Pasco, June 16: Routine (85 red, 5 blue)
▪ LuLu Craft Bar and Kitchen, 606 Columbia Point, Richland, June 22: Routine (80 red, 0 blue)
▪ LuLu Craft Bar, 606 Columbia Point, Richland, June 23: Follow up (0 red, 0 blue)
▪ Tacos Figueroa, Flea Market, Pasco, June 12: Follow up (75 red, 5 blue)
▪ Yokes (pizza), 1410 W. 27th, Kennewick, June 20: Routine (35 red, 3 blue)
▪ DQ Grill and Chill (Meadow Ridge), 91 Gage Blvd., Richland, June 24: Routine (30 red, 0 blue)
▪ Double Dragon, 3107 W. Clearwater, Kennewick, June 13: Routine (75 red, 5 blue)
▪ Best Western Inn at Horse Heaven, 259 Merlot Drive, Prosser, June 22: Routine (55 red, 0 blue)
▪ Casa Mia, 2541 W. Kennewick Ave., Kennewick, June 15: Routine (50 red, 0 blue)
▪ Sports Page Bar and Grill, 6 S. Cascade, Kennewick, June 14: Routine (45 red, 2 blue)
▪ Lil Firehouse Coffee, 3708 W. Clearwater Ave., Kennewick, June 22: Routine (40 red, 3 blue)
▪ Little Randy’s Old Time Diner, 17 E. 1st Ave., Kennewick, June 16: Routine (35 red, 0 blue)
▪ Foodies, 308 W. Kennewick Ave., Kennewick, June 16: Routine (70 red, 7 blue)
▪ Red Apple (deli), 902 S. Washington, Kennewick, June 14: Follow up (5 red, 0 red)