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WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : A Health Regimen : They look for danger under shelves and behind refrigerators. Armed with just a pen and paper, county health inspectors scour restaurants, markets, and factories to safeguard the public.

March 30, 1995|ADRIAN MAHER

On a recent afternoon, Los Angeles County health inspector Mike Byrne drops by a basement delicatessen in a Beverly Hills office building for an unannounced inspection.

Within minutes, the eatery, A and S Buffeterium, has accumulated more than a dozen violations of county codes. Byrne has spotted cockroach droppings on pipes, open bulk food containers and diced vegetables stored in metal cans.

As his inspection continues, Byrne disposes of a pound of cooked chicken and a platter of tuna salad after measuring the temperature of the food, which is too warm. Ninety minutes later, after looking under shelving, moving produce and poking behind refrigerators, Byrne is sweating profusely as he finishes the inspection. There are 34 violations, a large number for so small a retail space, he says.

Shortly after he reads the violations to the owner, she bursts into tears at the extent of the needed corrections. Perhaps the most expensive will be to replace the restaurant's consumer-type refrigerators with commercial models that are more durable, easier to clean and better at maintaining temperatures. "Sometimes it's not easy to deal with--you wonder if the corrections will put someone out of business," Byrne says. "But it really doesn't cost a lot to keep a place clean."

For the past few years, Byrne has poked in every nook and cranny of hundreds of Westside grocery stores, supermarkets and restaurants searching for telltale signs of food-borne illnesses. Armed with a clipboard, thermometer and flashlight, he has spent hours crawling on his knees, climbing ladders and reaching into dark storage areas to enforce the county's health, building and safety codes.

Today, such excursions are merely memories. Byrne was recently promoted to a supervisorial position in the county Department of Health Services' Vector Management Division. But he takes pride in the three-year tour of duty he just completed at the county Environmental Health Division's West Los Angeles office.

On a typical day, health inspectors write up dozens of violations--from excessive cockroach infestation to faulty plumbing and improper food handling. But over the last few years, the Westside office, as well as the others throughout the county, have faced increasing pressures.

Funding cuts have hit the county Environmental Health Division, which includes inspectors of food facilities. This has resulted in the loss of four of 15 positions in the Westside office.

Meanwhile, some restaurants, hard-hit by the recession in the early 1990s, have cut costs by reducing maintenance. An influx of immigrants to the region has sparked a proliferation of ethnic restaurants that often employ unique food preparation practices that clash with county regulations. And last year's earthquake required the deployment of dozens of extra environmental health inspectors to help check the extensive structural damage sustained by food-based businesses.

The county closes about 50 restaurants a month, almost double the number 10 years ago, said Carl Charles, director of the county's Environmental Health Division. The West Los Angeles office receives about 180 complaints a month from the public, up from about 130 complaints a decade ago, said Charles.

Despite the declining resources and increased workload, Byrne and others say the county has managed to keep the region's restaurants and food markets relatively clean.

"Over the years we've protected hundreds of thousands of stomachs and maybe even a few lives," he said. "We've prevented any backsliding in restaurants which could have become a significant threat to the public's health."

Terrance Powell, a supervisor at the county Department of Environmental Health's Westside district office, said: "We have played a vital role in preventing illnesses. When we are doing our job no one knows it--when we are not, then we become part of the spotlight and that hasn't happened."

Byrne's recent rounds illustrated the demands and importance of a health inspector's work.

The first stop is at Tommy's Original World Famous Hamburgers in Santa Monica. Within minutes, Byrne checks the paper towel dispenser, looks for mold in the soft drink dispenser nozzle and tests the temperature of the hot water faucet in the kitchen sink.

"I can almost tell the (temperature) of the water by feel," he said as he rubbed his fingers in the flow. County law demands that water temperature be at least 120 degrees to ensure that bacteria is killed when employees wash their hands.

With a quick thrust, Byrne plunges his thermometer into some refrigerated meat. The temperature hovers just under 45 degrees, which is the county's ceiling on cold food. Next, he measures the temperature of chili simmering in a pot--also acceptable at 150 degrees, 10 degrees above the county health requirement for hot food.

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