Friday, March 16, 2007

Harsh glare of the spotlight

A Chinese restaurant in Spring Valley, NY, is hoping to reopen for the weekend rush after being shuttered because health officials reportedly found 500 mouse droppings in the place. Which, of course, means that some poor schlub had to invest considerable time in counting rodent turds. We can only hope he or she was an apprentice or intern. “You start with droppings, then move up to taking a temp reading or two, and before you know it you’re going mano-a-mano with salmonella,” they were probably told by inspection greybeards in the department’s break room, which you have to assume is spotless.

I pass this along not only as fodder for choosing your dim sum source this weekend, but also to underscore how the health inspection, once the foodservice industry’s equivalent of a prostate check, is suddenly in the internet spotlight. The news-gathering services we use here at Nation’s Restaurant News have been as plump as Rosie O’Donnell with local stories about restaurant closings and appetite-dashing health-inspection results. No doubt it’s part of the fallout from New York City’s ongoing rat scandal, which no doubt left reporters and inspectors in the hinterlands smashing a fist in into their palms and wishing they could get a chance to test their mettle with a situation like that. So, they’re going out and finding them, which may not be that difficult to do.

The attention to health inspections and their effectiveness may be new to the Information Superhighway, but they’ve been hot topics among restaurant-business leaders for some time, and in far less-flattering terms. Perhaps no party knows better than the industry that the inspection process has been on a slide for sometime, the result of budget cuts, increased inspector workloads, high turnover of department personnel, no standardization, and, perhaps more than anything, poor training for a job that’s grown more difficult. Many health departments have smartly turned to the trade for its most-popular training curriculum, the ServSafe program; some foodservice leaders confess that they’ve investigated ways of giving the program to inspectors or crafting training programs for them, since restaurants actually welcome the scrutiny of an outside party, provided it’s competent.

The International Food Safety Council, a group formed under the auspices of the National Restaurant Association, got a go-ahead from the parent group in May 2005 to seek a standardization of safety standards on the state and local level. Establishing across-the-board safety criteria would spare chains the aggravation of having to customize their training from location to location. But it would have the added benefit of standardizing the training process from area to area, allowing inspectors and their instructors to be recruited across jurisdictions. They wouldn’t have to start in each new post as a droppings-counter because the system there was new to them.

In any case, perhaps all this newfound attention on the inspection process will have a salutary effect. If it’s in the spotlight, perhaps the job of inspector will garner some interest, if not a hint of CSI-like glamour. Perhaps the position should even be renamed. How about rat buster?


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