County health inspector Barbara Price dipped a thermometer into the refrigerated pastrami and raw bacon. Forty-five degrees and dropping. Very good.
Meanwhile, over in the clam chowder pot, it was 178 degrees. Excellent.
The bleu cheese was looking good too, as was the mayonnaise and mustard.
No problem with the beer dispensers--the steady trickle of water meant that yeast would not form around the nozzles. There was running water in the dipper well where the ice cream scooper was. No demerits there--running water would guard against bacteria forming from dairy products.
Next, she shined the flashlight under the sinks, into the corners and cupboards. Whew--no mouse droppings.
All the while, Price was subtly checking out the kitchen workers. How was their personal grooming? Were they scratching at flaky skin? Were they wearing dirty clothes? Was their hair falling into the soup?
For Price, this tour of duty was one of the good ones. After her 30-minute inspection of the Knowl-Wood hamburger restaurant in Irvine, Price wrote her report. She had found just two minor violations--for an untied trash bag in the dumpster outside and for a food preparation table stored with one edge touching the floor, which could introduce contamination.
She and restaurant manager Steve Lewis amiably discussed the violations and bid each other goodby. Lewis said later: "Over the 15 years I've been in the restaurant business, this is the first time a health inspector has actually worked with me. Most of the time (in other places), they seemed to put themselves on a pedestal and wouldn't even speak to me until after they were finished writing their report."
Arriving unannounced, armed with thermometers and flashlights, inspectors are empowered to check every nook and cranny of every restaurant kitchen and restroom in the county. Their aim is to prevent food-borne illnesses from spreading.
"The big key is hand-washing--soap and water," said James Huston, assistant director of the county's Environmental Health Division. "That's the key to breaking the chain of infection from people to food."
That is why a visit to a restaurant's sinks to check for hot water is always one of Price's first stops.
In addition, inspectors check such easily detectable things as storage temperatures--45 degrees or lower for refrigerated food, 140 degrees and higher for heated. Food temperature is crucial, because it can keep germs that might get into food from spreading. Inspectors also look for subtleties, such as an employee leaving clothes that might be contaminated next to food.
And while health officials generally give restaurants in the county good marks for sanitation, Price and the 46 other inspectors of the county's 6,000 restaurants remain vigilant: Every month, eight to 10 restaurants have their health permits suspended and are shut down on the spot for state health code violations that pose immediate dangers to public health. They are not allowed to reopen until the violations are corrected.
"Given the number of establishments, that's not a particularly significant number to cause concern or alarm," Huston said.
In Price's first few months on the job, her reports were much longer than they are now. That led her to ask herself whether she was still being sufficiently diligent. Her conclusion: Her reports were shorter because the restaurants were doing a better job.
"I'd say the restaurants in Orange County are pretty good, and I would say they've definitely improved because of the frequency of the inspections," Price said.
The county has set an as-yet-unreached goal of four unannounced visits a year to restaurants. In recent years, the number of visits has increased from about two a year to the current 3.2 annual visits, Huston said.
Price, 31 and a three-year veteran with the department, remembers the first on-the-spot shutdown she ordered. It came about five months into her job.
"I went to this one restaurant, and on the first inspection, they were bad; they had a lot to do," she said. "I had follow-ups, and then I came back on my second routine (unannounced inspection), and it looked pretty good in the food storage room. There wasn't a lot of food residue on the containers, and I thought, 'This is going to be a lot better.'
"And I came out of this room, and I turned around and I looked on the floor, and this thing had just died. I mean, a fresh dead rat, right near the wash area."
The employees began smirking and pointed toward the dead rodent. "They knew that was what was upsetting me," Price said.
A moment later, one of them picked up the rat by the tail and threw it in the trash can.
While those kinds of episodes give the inspectors something to talk about at the end of the day, they are not typical, Price said. In her three years on the job, she has shut down only about a half-dozen restaurants for health-endangering violations, all for either rodent or bug infestations.