Nowadays, everybody is a food critic. From the local drive thru to metro Detroit’s finest five-star establishments, websites such as yelp.com and urbanspoon.com allow anyone with an Internet connection to critique one of the more than 10,000 restaurants in the tri-county area, regardless of their palate or knowledge of food and food preparation. Ultimately, the most important reviews for a restaurant are often the ones conducted by the local health department.
Anthony Drautz, administrator for Oakland County’s Health Division, said that while the department sometimes receives reports from restaurant patrons of food-related sickness, the number of actual confirmed food-borne illness cases is actually far less than people tend to believe.
“A lot of people call when they get sick, and we screen them. But a lot of people don’t even remember what they ate 48 hours ago, or they have their mind made up of what they ate that made them sick,” Drautz said. “Sometimes they will call an hour after eating something, but there is an incubation process, and they probably didn’t get sick there.”
In most cases, he said, food-borne illnesses require an incubation period to effect a person and make them ill.
“They have to give us a 72-hour history of what they ate so we can investigate all of the facilities,” he said. “In many cases, it’s not the last place you ate.”
Under Michigan’s Food Law, restaurant inspections must be conducted by local health departments. Fixed restaurants that operate on a year-round basis are required by law to be inspected twice a year. Other food establishments, such as mobile food vendors and temporary pop-up style restaurants may be inspected less.
As the entity in Oakland County responsible for restaurant inspections, Drautz said the health division conducts between 17,000 and 18,000 inspections each year. That includes bi-annual restaurant inspections of fixed restaurants; follow-up inspections; mobile food sellers; vending machines; Special Transitory Food Units (STFU), or temporary food establishments licensed to operate throughout the state; and other temporary food establishments.
During an inspection, restaurants may be given violations for different levels of safety concerns. Violations aren’t uncommon. In fact, almost every restaurant has had a violation at some point during its history and owners work to resolve them as quickly as possible, according to the Michigan Restaurant Association.
“When we conduct an inspection, what we are mainly looking for are those times that are directly linked to food borne illnesses. Although we look at everything, a large focus of our inspections are preventing food borne illness,” said Michelle Estell, public health sanitarian supervisor with the Oakland County Health Division, who supervises the county’s 35 inspectors, or sanitarians. “Other things we look at are based on the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s) five risk factors. For example, poor personal hygiene; foods that are cooked to the wrong temperatures; foods that are held at the wrong temperature; contaminated food surfaces; as well as the food source itself, making sure that it comes in safely and comes from a source that is approved. There are many questions we ask the operator to determine, such as how things come into their facility, how things move through the facility and how things are prepared, based on our visual inspection. And, we are taking temperatures and doing a visual check of things.
“We also look at the physical facility to make sure that it’s in good condition and clean. We look at a number of plumbing things in a facility that are related to how things should operate, as well as food handling practices.”
Violations cited during inspections fall under three categories, including core violations, priority foundation violations and priority violations.
Core violations, generally, are those that relate to the physical facility, such as the floors, walls and ceilings. They may also refer to violations that, left uncorrected, could contribute to food borne illness, such as an employee failing to wear a hat or hair net where required. Under the state’s food law, restaurants have up to 90 days to correct core violations.
Priority violations are mainly those that directly cause food borne illness, and are considered the most critical violations. An example of a priority violation would include a staff person failing to wash their hands. Priority violations must be corrected with the health inspector present, if possible.
Priority foundation violations support or enable a priority violation. An example would be if a restaurant fails to provide soap at the employee hand washing station. Under state law, restaurants have 10 days to correct priority and priority foundation violations. However, food sanitarians have 30 days to conduct a follow-up inspection.
The three categories of violations were changed in October of 2012, when changes to Michigan’s Food Code went into effect. Prior to the changes, violations were categorize as “critical” and “non-critical” violations.
Justin Winslow, vice president of governmental affairs for the Michigan Restaurant Association, said the association supported the changes to violation categories, which are essentially in name only.
“We were really working on the language change from the two-tiered system to the new three-tiered,” he said. “When so much reputation is at play, just using the term ‘critical,’ when it had such a large range that fit into that term – there were some things that fit into that which didn’t present an eminent threat. Maybe they didn’t have an adequate amount of paper towel in the bathroom. The change made sense not just in the vernacular, but also in a real sense of what needs to be done and addressed.”
While it’s common for restaurants to receive violations during an inspection, the majority of violations haven’t resulted from food borne illnesses. In some cases, a staff member may not be aware that they are doing something that is a violation of the food code. In order to better educate staff, restaurants are now required to employ food service managers – a requirement that was implemented statewide in 2012, but has been required in Oakland County since 1999. Oakland County offers a basic food service class, as well as a certified food service manager course.
While the frequency of specific violations vary from county to county, the most frequently cited violations typically include those involving hot and cold holding of food, failure to label foods with a proper date and plumbing system violations.
Amy Aumock of the Livingston County Health Department said the most common violations in 2014 included: hot holding of food less than 135 degrees or cold holding higher than 41 degrees (priority violation); not having paper towels at hand sinks (priority foundation violation); potentially hazardous food held longer than 24 hours and not dated or that has expired (priority foundation); food stored uncovered or less than 6-inches off the floor (core violation); light bulbs in food prep or storage area without proper shields or not shatterproof (core violation); hand washing sinks without sinks reminding employees to wash their hands (core); refrigerated or hot food storage units without ambient air thermometers (core); a plumbing system not repaired according to law or not maintained or in good repair (core or priority, depending on violation); working containers used for storing poisonous or toxic materials such as cleaners taken from bulk supplies not labeled with the common name of the material (priority foundation).
Additionally, she said priority violations involving cross contamination of food or failing to wash surfaces in contact with potentially hazardous foods have significantly increased.
Other common violations may include smoking, drinking or eating around food contact surfaces, or storing personal food in an area that may come in contact with service food.
“We don’t license their personal food items, and we don’t inspect their personal food items, so it should be kept away from other foods,” Estell of Oakland County said. “It’s not that they can’t drink something at work, it’s that they need to do it safely. For example, they need to drink from a covered cup, usually a cup with a lid and a straw, and that needs to be stored safely. It needs to be beneath or separate from all food service items in a single serve cup so that it doesn’t contaminate the items that are going to the consumer.”
Additional changes to the state’s food code include removing undercooked ground meat (e.g. hamburgers) from a children’s menu; requiring mechanically tenderized meat to be cooked to 155-degrees for 15 seconds.
“There have been a few changes and updates, and we incorporate those into our program,” Oakland County’s Estell said. “For instance, when looking at par cooking, in the past they were required to cook them a second time to 165 degrees, and they changed that. They can only cook for 60 minutes and it has to be cooled, then it can be reheated to the appropriate temperature for that product. That gives a better product.”
Winslow said most changes to the state’s food law, which is based on federal law, are made when there are changes at the federal level, which is revised every four years. The most significant changes, he said, were made at the federal level in 2009, which resulted in the 2012 changes at the state level. Revisions to the federal food law in 2013, he said, were far less dramatic.
“Food allergens is an increasing issue for a lot of people,” he said, referencing what changes may come in the future. “A lot of restaurants are inspected by local health departments, usually the county. But in less populated areas, they span over several counties. There is a large variety on how locals go about doing inspections, so if you’re a multi-unit operator, you’re not necessarily viewed the same by each department. It would be nice to have one single regulator out there.”
Despite some difference in operations, local health departments must still base their inspection reports on state food code. Restaurant inspections conducted in Oakland County are available to the public by request, while many other departments provide report findings through online databases that are available to the public.
Oakland County spokesman Bill Mullan said the county doesn’t provide restaurant inspections online, as doing so may have the potential to damage an establishment’s reputation and business if the public doesn’t fully understand the report and the violations – a concern echoed by the state restaurant association.
“It’s important to remember that accessing restaurant inspection reports isn’t new – the information was always available to the public,” the Michigan Restaurant Association said. “Now that they are posted online, it’s simply easier to access. Just like with any new information you can find quickly and easily online, it’s critical that one understands exactly what information is provided in a restaurant inspection report before making judgements regarding the establishment.
“It’s also important to remember that restaurant operators take food safety very seriously. Restaurateurs are, more often than not, in the hospitality industry because it’s their passion. They know that people live their lives in restaurants – birthdays, anniversaries, and so many other life events are celebrated in restaurants. They want their customers to feel safe eating in their establishments. It’s very personal to them.”
It also is worth noting that providing inspection reports online in Oakland County would likely be a time-consuming process, as the county’s health division conducts more inspections than any other local department in the state, as well as the most number of fixed restaurants.
Drautz said the department has a total of 35 food sanitarians that are assigned to the program who conduct inspections throughout the year. There are about 4,703 food service licenses currently issued in the county for fixed restaurants.
“The majority of the fixed food establishments are inspected semi-annually, or twice a year,” he said. “You could have somebody that is less frequent because they are seasonal, or it could be more frequent because of follow-up inspections or inspection problems if it’s a problem facility. That’s why you get up to 18,000 inspections.
“We are very busy, but we have a very good staff. There is no backlog – that’s a requirement – that we get our inspections done on a frequency. We can’t be more than 30 days past due. We have contractual obligations and minimum program requirements with the (Michigan) Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, and we need to meet those. Some of that is tied to funding and our accreditation. We have been successful so far.”
Winslow at the Michigan Restaurant Association also praised Oakland County’s food program.
“Oakland County has a fantastic local health department,” said Winslow. “They are efficient and fair. They usually try to build a relationship with the restaurant they are inspecting. If you aren’t doing something right, they let them know and what they need to do, and where they need to be. They are a model.”
Sherry LaBelle, with the Macomb County Health Department, said the department has 15.5 full-time employees that conduct food service sanitation inspections as part of their job duties. She said staff conducted a total of 5,812 routine, follow-up and temporary food inspections in 2014 and the results are posted online.
Wayne County’s health department, which conducts restaurant inspections for the entire county with the exception of those establishments located inside the city of Detroit, conducted 8,818 inspections in 2014. The department employs 15 full-time employees and oversees 3,398 fixed restaurant licenses. The county provides restaurant inspections online at www.swordsolutions.com.
Aumock of Livingston County said they employ three food sanitarians, including herself. The department conducted 1,026 inspections in 2014.
According to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development Food and Dairy Division’s latest annual report, the number of inspections conducted at fixed food establishments by local health departments in 2013 totaled 8,569 – more than double that of Macomb County (4,299) and about 3,000 more than Wayne County (5,555, not including Detroit). Livingston County conducted 781 during the same period. Those figures don’t include the total number of food inspections conducted by each local health department, which also includes mobile food establishments, vending machines and Special Transitory Food Units, such as temporary pop-up restaurants and events.
Statewide, Oakland County received about 13 percent of all food licenses, the most in the state, with Wayne (9 percent) and Macomb (8 percent) counties the second and third highest.
Of the four southeast Michigan health departments, Oakland County was the only one that stated it had revoked any food service licenses in the past three years for local restaurants. Despite the license revocations, Drautz said the five establishments have either addressed the issues, changed ownership, or closed permanently.
“A couple are no longer in business or have different owners,” he said. “The others are operating now, and we hate for that to damage their business in any way.
“Our focus is on education. We do try to go in and educate and change the way the operation is managed, and change food safety practices well in advance of consideration of revocation of a license. When it gets to that point, there’s a history with repeat violations, often priority violations, and we felt they just couldn’t operate safely. Some of these may have changed ownership, or they have cleaned up. Some are out of business.”
The restaurants that have had their license revoked due to violations in the past three years include:
- Eddie’s Coney Island, 1749 Haggerty Road, in Commerce Township. The restaurant’s license was revoked in 2014 and has since been reinstated. The owner of the restaurant wasn’t available for comment.
-Rumalee’s, at 30701 W. 12 Mile Road, in Farmington Hills. The restaurant had its license revoked by the health division in 2012, and has since closed. A posting on the restaurant’s Facebook page in November of 2012 stated that the establishment is undergoing “significant changes and will re-open under a new name soon.” In December 2013, the restaurant announced on Facebook that it would be closing.
- Priya, at 3660 Grand River, in Farmington Hills. The restaurant has since closed and is under new ownership.
-Zayeqa, Halal, Indo, Pak and Chinese Food, at 29208 Orchard Lake Road in Farmington Hills. The restaurant was re-opened in 2014 under new ownership.
-Steven Lelli’s on the Green, at 27925 Golf Park Blvd., at the Copper Creek Golf Course in Farmington Hills. The restaurant’s license was revoked in 2014 and re-instated the same year. The owners of the restaurant weren’t able to be reached for comment.
“We don’t want to put people out of business. We would like to educate them on their practices on how to do it right, and not to use that as a violation to shut them down,” Drautz said. “We want to make sure they are running a successful business and using good food safety practices. That’s the bottom line. Education is really key. We spend a lot of time in these facilities just to make sure people are educated and doing things safe.”
Oakland County restaurant owner Chuck Darany of Big Boy of Madison Heights said the tough and demanding inspections are precisely what makes the county’s program successful.
“I have owned a restaurant in Madison Heights for over 30 years. I keep it spotless. It keeps me employed,” Darany wrote in a letter dated September 17, 2014 to Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson. “I had my semi-annual health department inspection yesterday and it was so tough and so demanding that I was truly proud. Every corner was inspected and every temperature was taken. The inspector was tough and professional. Just what I would want and expect from Oakland County. Thank you.
“It has become a relationship we depend on with your health department. A partnership really. We can be the best we can be and our neighbors can feel safe. Thank you for that.”