In most major U.S. cities, all it takes is a glance at a restaurant’s front window to see how its recent restaurant inspection went. Viewing Lane County’s restaurant health inspection grades take a few more steps, requiring a trip to the county’s website.
The Register-Guard has been publishing a select few of Lane County restaurant inspection reports weekly since March 1 (and the Salem Statesman-Journal for Linn and Benton counties), copying and pasting data from the county’s website.
Those weekly articles have increased the number of calls from the public to Lane County Public Health about the scores, and local restaurants feel that the newspaper should be contacting them for comment. And, yes, it’s still safe to eat at a restaurant that doesn’t have a perfect score; if there was an immediate threat to public health, the restaurant would be closed.
One of the establishments that has been featured says it got angry messages from customers who thought a score of less than 100 meant the food service was unclean. The restaurant didn’t want to be identified for fear it would lead to further negative attention.
“This is something that people do need to know because it’s sanitation, and it could hurt someone,” Garrett Kirsch, co-owner of NorthWest Burgers, says of the RG’s publishing the scores. Kirsch often posts NorthWest Burgers’ scores on social media; its latest score is 100. “But is it beneficial what they’re doing to those restaurants?”
Kirsch and his wife, Felicia Kirsch, co-own NorthWest Burgers and work full time in the kitchens of its two locations — one in Springfield’s Public House and another in Eugene’s Fifth Street Eateries. He says he and his wife both attended Lane Community College’s culinary program, where they completed coursework on sanitation and food safety and have used this knowledge to keep their kitchens clean and safe.
“We know what they’re going to check for when they show up; we know what they’re looking for,” Kirsch says. “Working with them, understanding that they’re very knowledgeable. They know what they’re doing.”
Erik Nebeker is the environmental health supervisor for Lane County Public Health. He says Oregon law requires that restaurants — including brick-and-mortar buildings and food carts — have two inspections every year. The inspections are random and are unannounced, but Nebeker says that restaurants have an idea of when the next inspection is because it’s usually every six months and they’re not there for “gotcha” moments.
The RG’s publishing of semi-annual restaurant inspections has increased the number of questions about the scoring. “The likelihood for illness is very low,” Nebeker says about food safety. “Just because the score is not 100 doesn’t mean that you’re going to become ill.”
Kirsch is proud of the health scores his restaurants have received in the past eight years, often being awarded perfect scores. But there have been times he’s been dinged — the lowest score NorthWest Burgers has received is a 92.
An example of an instance where NorthWest Burgers had to be re-inspected by the county was when Kirsch’s sanitation water bucket didn’t have the correct levels of sanitizer solution. Restaurants must have hot sanitation water in various spots in a kitchen. But he corrected it immediately.
“When stuff like that happens, you just have to make new protocols, making sure that the employees are testing sanitation every single time they’re using it,” Kirsch says.
Kirsch says that the RG’s food inspection reports are “very vague” and don’t follow up on restaurants that have corrected mistakes.
Nebeker says he recommends that people visit Lane County Public Health’s inspection website, where they can read full comments by health inspectors as well as corrective measures made by restaurants.
A restaurant’s kitchen is required to meet at least a 70-point score, but having a score less than the perfect 100 isn’t a condemnation of the establishment, Nebeker says. Food inspectors are adept at observing a kitchen’s operations and logistics, so a less-than-perfect score shouldn’t concern customers. “It’s a living score,” he says, adding that inspectors are there to educate restaurants, not publicly penalize them.
Kirsch says he and his staff work hard to earn 100-point scores, which aren’t easily awarded for locally run restaurants. Many chain restaurants receive 100-point inspections because for those establishments, Kirsch says, corporations have the financial means to train their supervisors to oversee kitchens and build sanitation infrastructure beyond the local demands of health inspections. And some of those chain restaurants might even be reheating pre-cooked food, not cooking from fresh ingredients.
A food inspector’s scoring has two categories: priority foundation and priority violations. A priority foundation may lead to a food-borne-related illness through the germs of a kitchen worker’s personal drink or cell phone being stored in the wrong place. It’s a 3-point violation that could possibly cause contamination if the cup or cell phone ends up on a food surface.
A priority violation is a higher point 5-point penalty because it can directly lead to a food-borne illness, such as salmonella. This includes not cooking chicken to 165 degrees Fahrenheit or not storing food at the correct temperature. Sometimes a specific issue may require a food inspector to follow up if kitchen equipment is working properly, such as dishwashing equipment. But shutting down a kitchen seldom happens, he says.
“We really want to promote food safety,” Nebeker says. “That’s what we’re there for. Anything that we see related to food safety, we’re going to work with the operator so that they can be that much better.”
To view kitchen inspection scores, reviews and corrections, visit Inspections.MyHealthDepartment.com/or-lane-county. EW reached out to the RG for comment and was referred to Gannett PR.