Who is served by restaurant inspections? — Luc Dinh Ky Restaurant
JOSHUA SUDOCK, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Major vs. minor violations
MAJOR: Refers to a food safety problem that poses an imminent health hazard and warrants immediate action or even closure of the food facility. Major violations can refer to vermin or pest infestations, poor employee hygiene, improper food holding temperatures and inadequate refrigeration, contaminated equipment or food from unapproved sources. Although major violations are weighted the same by health inspectors, some are more “major” than others if they cannot be immediately addressed. For example, a vermin infestation, in which the cause of the infestation is not clear, is more serious than the lack of a cleaning agent in a dishwasher, which can be identified and addressed immediately.
MINOR:Less serious violations that do not pose an immediate threat to health and safety and can be immediately addressed. For example: a refrigerator light bulb (that can be changed) or a can of soda left on a kitchen preparation table (that can be removed). Almost every restaurant will receive at least one minor violation in the course of an inspection.
Friday, February 22, 2008
Who is served by restaurant inspections?
The Orange County Health Department says its restaurant inspection system gives consumers the freedom to make up their own minds. Critics say it protects restaurants, not diners.
THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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The cooking utensils were so filthy at the Luc Dinh Ky restaurant, tucked within a busy strip mall of Little Saigon, that twice in one year, food inspectors had them destroyed.
There were other problems. Contaminated food stored at unsafe temperatures. Employees who didn’t wash their hands. Dirty dishes. A backed-up sewage system that overflowed onto kitchen floors.
Again and again, county health inspectors returned to Luc Dinh Ky to find potentially health-threatening problems: 34 “major” food safety violations in all, the most found in any Orange County restaurant in 2007.
Luc Dinh Ky remains open for business.
The lesson Orange County diners might draw from the operation of restaurants such as Luc Dinh Ky brings to mind an ancient warning: caveat emptor– let the buyer beware. In a county without a visible food safety rating system, restaurants with multiple major violations – defined by the Orange County Health Care Agency as practices that “pose the highest risk of causing food poisoning or food borne illness” – can operate largely free from public scrutiny.
The Register has sorted through hundreds of thousands of county food inspection reports to identify restaurants, school and hospital cafeterias, grocery stores and other food venues in Orange County that have the least and the most food safety violations.
The results might surprise. The customers of Laguna Niguel’s humble Frosted Cup Frozen Yogurt &Gelato shop, which had zero major or minor violations in 2007, might feel more reassured than the employees of the Ritz-Carlton in Dana Point, whose “Employee Buffet” had five major violations, including a cockroach infestation.
The kitchen area in Santa Ana’s Heart of Jesus Retreat Center kept its guests pure in spirit andbody with zero violations in 2007. But San Juan Capistrano’s state-of-the-art JSerra Catholic High School, a private school that sits on 29 acres and is in the midst of building an $85million athletic facility, racked up four major violations, including two related to the cleaning of dishes and cooking utensils.
The findings also illustrate the difficulties consumers face in sorting through the county’s complicated food rating system. For example: Luc Dinh Ky, Orange County’s “worst” restaurant in terms of sheer numbers of major violations, may not be its most unsanitary. That distinction may go to the ABC Baguette &Bakery in Westminster, a facility whose three rodent infestations in 2007 – and subsequent multiple failures to heed county health department warnings – got it shut down seven times in 2007.
A rodent infestation is considered one of the most serious types of violations in terms of posing an urgent and immediate safety risk to the public. The lesson, health inspectors say, is that the type and severity of violations – not just the number – matter in assessing risk.
To a consumer, however, Orange County’s food safety system provides little guidance on how clean a restaurant is.
In 2007 there were 20,052 major and 163,003 minor food safety violations found in some of Orange County’s 13,173 restaurants, supermarkets, convenience stores and other food venues. The violations, ranging from lack of hot water to vermin infestations, were found over the course of 40,431 inspections.
Of these, 13 restaurants, and 280 food venues overall, had zero major or minor violations.
These “best of the best” restaurants were characterized by one thing.
“The owners and the managers who do it correctly … have put their time and talent into safeguarding the public,” said Mike Haller, program manager for the health department’s food protection program.
There were 127 restaurants countywide with 10 or more major violations.
Unsurprisingly, considering their size and large populations, the North County cities of Santa Ana, Westminster and Garden Grove were home to more than half of these restaurants – 60 in all.
Proportionally, however, some of Orange County’s more prosperous areas had the most major food safety violations.
Although Westminster had the highest rate of major violations per restaurant – 4.1 – it was followed by Foothill Ranch (3.73), as well as La Palma (3.32), San Juan Capistrano (3.28) and Laguna Beach (3.25). Tiny Capistrano Beach, with only 10 dining establishments, had 3.4 major violations per restaurant.
Ethnic restaurants worst
In terms of sheer numbers of major violations, top offenders tended to be restaurants tailored to Orange County’s large Latin and Asian immigrant communities. Five of the six top offenders – restaurants with 20 or more major violations – were Asian, almost all located either in Westminster or Santa Ana. The other was Mexican: Mariscos Moncho El Pescador in Santa Ana, that also set a county record for minor violations: 115 in all.
There were at least a few surprises on the “worst” list, including San Juan Capistrano’s upscale Sarducci’s Capistrano Depot, with 16 major violations including two for rodent and cockroach infestations. Laguna Woods’ Hometown Buffet, a popular spot for seniors on El Toro Road, also had 16 major violations, as did Laguna Beach’s Beach House Inn, a Mobil Travel Guide-reviewed restaurant where dinner entrees range from $24 for the “prosciutto-wrapped diver sea scallops” to $40 for the lobster tail.
County food safety experts said communication was an issue in the Little Saigon area of Westminster, home to many of the top violators.
“We can take a document and put it into Vietnamese or Spanish or Korean, but does that resonate with the operator?” said Richard Sanchez, director of environmental health for the county Health Care Agency. “There’s got to be a better way rather than just handing them a document.”
Sanchez said the county had difficulty competing for in-demand bilingual inspectors and currently had one Vietnamese speaker and about eight Spanish speakers on a staff of about 55 full-time inspectors.
Food educator hired
In 2007, Sanchez said the agency hired a “Food Worker Educator” to teach repeat offenders about food safety. That worker, who is not bilingual, relies on translators.
Operators “need to learn why it’s important why having cockroaches and rodents is not a good thing,” Sanchez said. “That’s where we kind of lose it … they understand I have to keep (a food item) refrigerated but not why it should be refrigerated. They need to understand why.”
That lack of understanding may be why restaurants such as Luc Dinh Ky continued to violate even after having their operating permit suspended by the Health Care Agency in 2007.
The restaurant was closed by health inspectors on March 30 after its sewage system backed up and flooded food preparation areas and after inspectors found “grossly encrusted debris” on cooking utensils and surfaces.
“That’s when there’s an accumulation of debris on them that’s more than just a day old,” Haller said. “This is stuff where we couldn’t tell what the food substance was. It means they haven’t been doing a real good job cleaning.”
Luc Dinh Ky’s permit was reinstated the same day and the restaurant went on to commit 18 major violations in the month of April alone.
Although the restaurant’s management did not respond to repeated requests for comment, a self-identified “friend” of management, Don Ly, said he was “stunned” by Luc Dinh Ky’s food safety record and said he believed the restaurant was “safe.”
“Surely there must be restaurants with more violations than us?” he asked.
In theory, even one major violation – depending on its severity – can result in the suspension of a commercial food venue’s operating permit, according to Sanchez. In practice, a suspension may last only as long as it takes the owner to fix the problem. As in the case of Luc Dinh Ky, some “suspended” permits are reinstated on the same day they are yanked, leaving the owner free to operate – and potentially violate – again.
“If they come back and they comply with everything we said, legally we have to give them another permit,” Sanchez said.
Restaurants with high numbers of major violations said that all problems had been addressed.
“They were all handled to the satisfaction of the health department and we are open and rolling again,” said Dennis Medeiros, owner of Sarducci’s Capistrano Depot.
Revocation of permit – a seemingly permanent event – is often less so. Although revocation means that the permit is canceled because of sustained patterns of serious food safety threats, there are no financial penalties for restaurant operators and so long as problems are fixed, a restaurant owner can purchase a new permit for $533 to $877, according to Sanchez.
Sanchez says few permits are revoked because the burden of proof is on the health inspector to prove a “sustained pattern of noncompliance” – the repeated occurrence of the same types of major violations – so that the county’s decision can stand up to an angry owner’s legal scrutiny.
“The burden of proof is on us to show this is done with intent,” Sanchez said. “It’s not something we do lightly because we have to build a case.”
In both cases – suspension and revocation – the punishment lasts only as long as the owner’s ability to remedy the problem.
A case in point: In 2006, Phat Ky Mi Gia, a Vietnamese restaurant in Garden Grove, had its permit suspended three times before being revoked, according to food inspection reports. A new permit was purchased and the restaurant continues to operate. Its tally in 2007: 15 major violations, including multiple violations for improper food storage, cooling and sanitation practices.
The problem, Sanchez said, is that food safety violations are sometimes caused by human error, and although a kitchen can be “closed for business,” a person cannot be.
Sanchez said although it was possible a judge might make a determination that a manager, after repeated violations, was unfit to run a restaurant, “in my career I’ve never seen that.”
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