Mike Haller has seen a 1 1/2-foot lizard crawling across the kitchen floor of a restaurant. He has seen beef jerky being "sunbaked" on the roof of a neighborhood market.
Haller is one of 54 Orange County inspectors who make surprise visits a few times a year to every food establishment in the county.
The inspectors poke thermometers into meat, peer underneath stoves, test dishwasher chlorine levels and, through countless other tasks, determine which of the county's 11,000-plus eateries aren't safe enough for the rest of us to patronize.
Haller alone is responsible for about 225 food establishments, from large supermarkets to tiny doughnut shops. But his job might get a little harder if county supervisors decide to create a restaurant grading system for the public.
After a brief discussion at their meeting Tuesday, supervisors directed the county Health Care Agency to review options and report back in three months.
The inspection force, marked by high turnover and an average of five vacancies, already falls short of the county's goal of inspecting each eatery four times a year.
A Los Angeles County system aimed at increasing inspections and giving consumers understandable ratings has caused inspections to take longer to complete and required a 55% increase in code enforcers.
"It's time in Orange County to make sure, whether with ratings or not, that we're doing everything in our power to ensure the public's safety," Supervisor Todd Spitzer said.
Supervisor Jim Silva said he doesn't believe such a grading system is necessary. "In the 6 1/2 years that I've been here, we haven't heard any calls about restaurants making people sick," Silva said.
While board members debated the county's needs Tuesday, Haller was making his usual rounds.
The first hours of his day were spent methodically exploring every inch of Manta's Burgers in Garden Grove. First he tested the walk-up restaurant's hot water with a sensitive digital thermometer.
"You look great--it's 129 degrees," he told owners Kyu Kim and Shizue Ganeko.
There are state codes about everything, from the maximum milk temperatures--45 degrees--to the placement of soap dispensers--permanently installed near sinks. Inspectors also must pass a tough state exam. Employers typically require them to have a four-year degree, preferably in biology or environmental health.
Haller has moved on to the steam tables at Manta's Burgers, where the chili and refried beans also meet state regulations. A spritz of Inspector, a chemical spray that draws cockroaches from their hiding spots, showed no sign of infestation. But some refrigerated ranch dressing and hamburger patties were a little too warm.
The diner ended up with a total of 10 violations, all minor: the plastic utensils were not stored with the handles facing up; the overhead "fly fan" near the back door was off when a delivery man walked through; there was a little food debris on two slicers.
Common problems include improper food temperatures and preparation, a lack of hand-washing facilities and vermin. Owners are given set amounts of time to fix minor violations, but can remain open. Major violations lead to the temporary closure of 208--or about 2%--of Orange County's eateries last year.
Haller said clean bathrooms and stocked toiletries are signs of decent sanitary standards. "Those are usually good indicators," he said.
The bathroom at Manta's Burgers checked out, and the inspection was almost over when Haller spotted slimy fluid dripping off a juice machine dispenser. The nozzle itself cannot be removed to be properly washed and sanitized, prompting Haller to prohibit the juice machine's use and to stop by again next week to ensure that the problem has been resolved.
The owners said they appreciated Haller's comments. The pair took over the establishment about a year ago, and they were nervous before their first inspection. "He's very nice to explain things so we can follow up," Ganeko said.
Some restaurant owners are not so cordial. When Haller found a cockroach infestation at a pricey Italian restaurant, he decided to close it immediately. He began scooping up the insects with his business card and placing them in a plastic bag to use as evidence.
"When [the owner] realized what I was doing, he grabbed my arm and ripped open the bag," Haller said. "Cockroaches went flying everywhere."
The man eventually apologized, and Haller didn't file charges. But he said such reactions are rare. "By human nature, most people are pretty good and want to run a clean restaurant," he said.
The grading proposal "is not a magic bullet," Haller said.
"The public can go to a restaurant and see a grade up there and it makes them feel better," he said. "But it's only a snapshot in time."
Times staff writer David Reyes contributed to this report.