How clean is the kitchen in your favorite restaurant? How about your child’s school cafeteria?
You could try to steal a glance inside or tediously search online reviews, but you’ll get more insight by reading what code inspectors found at local food facilities with an online tool at EatSafeSLO.org.
There, the San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department has made it easy to see recent inspection reports for the restaurants, bars, delicatessens, farm stands, bed-and-breakfasts, grocery stores and school cafeterias that serve food in the county.
With the searchable database and interactive map, you can find nearby places to eat, file a complaint against a facility, and read inspection reports from the last three years that include comments made by inspectors after surprise visits.
The map also highlights the high-scoring facilities in the county where inspectors found few or no violations of state retail food codes.
Of 1,633 permitted food retailers, 212 have reached that gold-star standard.
Laurie Salo, who supervises the nine inspectors in the county’s consumer protection program, says the tool allows consumers to see a pattern in the facility’s activities and make their own conclusion about whether it meets their standard of cleanliness.
“Most of our facilities are trying and are compliant,” Salo said. “Sometimes we go into a facility and things can be going crazy right then. We do have good facilities that have things go wrong.”
Comments in the inspection reports about the health and cleanliness of local eateries range from the seemingly trivial to the gag-inducing — including bacon needing to be destroyed “due to paint-like substance” on the food’s surface and “fish ... observed thawing in stagnant water in the mop sink.”
The mission of the enforcement program is to protect basic public health and prevent disease-causing agents and unsanitary conditions. Generally, that’s accomplished through education.
The cost of inspection is built into facilities’ permit fees, but there can be additional charges for repeat code violations that require multiple inspections.
How inspections work
An inspector visits the facility unannounced and evaluates food preparation and employee practices, as well as the condition of the facility, food storage practices and other factors that could impact the health and safety of the public. The inspector will explain the code section of any violation and later return for another inspection to see if the problem has been fixed.
Facilities are scored on a scale to 0 to 100 points, with 100 being the best. More points are deducted for violations that could result in food safety risk and when the violation is found repeatedly.
Most recent scores of local retail food facilities range from 65 to 100.
How often a place is inspected depends on the level of risk involved in the food served. A sushi bar, for example, is inspected every six months because raw fish is a high-risk food. A medium-risk facility is inspected every nine months and a low-risk facility, like a convenience store that sells mostly prepacked food, is inspected once a year.
Inspections are also done when a new facility opens or in response to a complaint.
Sometimes the violations are serious enough that they result in immediate closure.
That happened at 18 restaurants or grocery stores in San Luis Obispo County from 2016 and 2017. Some shuttered for a few hours, others for a few weeks — depending on how long it took to fix the problem.
Rodent infestations and sewage problems were cited by Salo as reasons that restaurants were shut down.
One of the most common reasons for a closure is an issue with a hand-washing station, such as a lack of hot water or a dispenser that’s out of soap. The state has strict requirements for hand washing because of the potential for the transmission of food-borne illness, Salo said.
No restaurant or grocery store closures have been ordered as of early September 2018.