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And even as fines were going up, so were the number of foodborne-illness complaints. Denver recorded 144 such complaints in 2012, compared to 128 in 2011 and 112 in 2010. And most incidents were small, although a handful involved multiple complaints (see graphic). "In the world of public health, using the number of complaints as a measure of public health is a notoriously dicey business and is not considered a reliable measure of the actual cases of illness," Danica Lee suggests. "Issues like marketing and visibility of the health agency, current stories running in the media, outbreaks of other non-foodborne illness in the community, and many other factors can contribute to the number of complaints received. It's very widely accepted in public health that complaints do not represent a good measure of illness in the community; a measure that would be much more closely tied into public-health measures is the number of violations per inspection."

Fines, on the other hand, can have a direct relation to enforcement, McDonald points out. Civil penalties were "significantly increased because they were woefully too low; there wasn't enough enforcement in the past," he says. If restaurateurs know they are going to be fined, "they're more apt to comply with the enforcement rules," and that will cut down on critical violations, which will cut down on safety hazards. "We know that critical violations can lead to foodborne illness, because the Centers for Disease Control statistics prove that," he notes.

But as the fines increased, so did complaints from restaurants — particularly restaurants owned by Frank Bonanno. "Frank has a challenging personality," McDonald says. "I would encourage him to spend as much energy focusing on correcting violations and keeping them corrected and less time on arguing and fighting with health inspectors, whose job it is to make food-service safety a priority."

"If I put myself in Bob McDonald's shoes and asked myself how I would go about raising revenue for the city with the most minimal backlash, the answer would be to get rid of the postings, fine restaurants more money, and the public will never know," Bonanno counters. "The department doesn't want to scare people away from eating out, because if people aren't eating out, the city isn't making any money."

"The biggest complaint that we hear from chefs is that they don't think the fine amounts are proportionate to what they perceive to be the seriousness of the violation — and there's the perception that inspectors are nitpicky," Lee notes. "But our investigators have a tough job, and we focus on education and documenting the violations that we see, because that's our responsibility to the public."

But the fines were the focus of the conversations that started in early 2012 about possible changes. "We had numerous meetings with the mayor's office to talk about the effectiveness and fairness of the current system, and how we could all work together to shift the focus of the inspection process to restaurant operators who wouldn't make the necessary changes, or were in need of education to address the problems within their establishment," says Meersman.

One of the most pervasive problems, he explains, was Denver's health-inspection form, which includes eight "critical item" categories: Food Source, Personnel, Food Temperature Control, Sanitation Rinse Temperature, Water — Sewage — Plumbing Systems, Hand Washing and Toilet Facilities, Pest Control and Toxic Items. Each category also has subcategories — an "unapproved source," for example, under the Food Source heading, or "soap or drying devices unavailable" under Hand Washing and Toilet Facilities. Those categories are far too broad, says Meersman.

There are 36 types of critical violations, and under any of those, "there are multiple code violations that would qualify for one type of violation," Meersman explains. For example, there's a violation pertaining to "food from an unapproved source" — a subcategory under Food Source on the inspection report. "If an establishment had molluscan shellfish not in the original container on its first inspection, it would be a 1 (a) violation," says Meersman. And on the "establishment's second inspection within a twelve-month period, food in hermetically sealed containers from an unapproved food source would also be a 1 (a) violation. Under the system in place prior to this year, those infractions would be considered a 'repeat violation,' and the establishment would receive a civil penalty."

Under the revised system introduced on January 1, "each of the 36 types of violations is broken down to the specific food-code section," Meersman says. And in order for a food-service establishment to garner a "repeat violation," it must violate the same food-code "item" within a twelve-month period. "It has to be the exact same violation, rather than the same category of violation," he notes.

The DEH also agreed to shift its "risk-based inspection frequency system" to reduce the number of inspections on facilities that haven't had a foodborne-illness outbreak. The minimum number of inspections of full-service restaurants — Bonanno's restaurants, for instance — will now take place two times per year; medium-risk facilities will be inspected a minimum of once a year; and low-risk facilities — a Starbucks, for instance — will be inspected at least once every eighteen months. The changes "will free up inspectors to focus on higher-risk establishments and allow more time for consultative visits to help operators with problem areas and/or staff training," Meersman notes.

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20 comments
myliberalbias
myliberalbias

I'm on Frank's side, but he's got one thing a little bit wrong. Norovirus is not really an airborne illness. While one can technically contract the disease by having the "spray" from an infected patient land in one's mouth, it's usually transmitted by hand. Fecal-oral. An infected person fails to properly wash his/her hands, touches an object that is then touched by another. Here's the problem. An infected person can shed the virus for up to two weeks and no employee at a restaurant is going to stay home for two weeks. And even someone who tries to wash properly can make the mistake of touching a faucet handle after using the restroom and touching the (now infected) handle again after washing. Plus, it takes very little virus to pass it along and the bug is not easily killed. Bleach will do it. Purell and Clorox wipes won't. So you see, it's an incredibly difficult germ to control. That's why proper use of gloves is essential in preventing infection. Again, I'm on Frank's side. I say let him have his secret meat lockers. But unless you know HOW norovirus is spread, you can't really know how to prevent its spread. Have a nice day.

Cook1
Cook1

I guarantee the campylobacter at strings was from Ryan Taylors house made cheese.

seejohnedrum
seejohnedrum

Two changes in the last decade have made it much harder on restaurants.  Cold holding temperatures went from 44f to 41f and 5 years ago we eliminated handling of prepared foods.  At the same time, the old inspectors were retiring and the 24 year old kids were filling their spots.  The young up-starts are trying to make their mark by holding the line while not understanding the nuances of food service.  For example, a seasoned inspector knows that a properly operating cooler during a busy period may be a few degrees warm while no danger exists.  Many young inspectors write violations (critical ones) for minor temperature deviations during peek hours.  Any hand contact by personnel is reported and paid for. If a server adjusts a garnish before serving, she is endangering the public.  Balderdash.  Did you know that the most common critical violation pertains to a restaurants hand washing sink.  In order the establish the importance of washing hands The B of H established the sanctity of the hand washing sink decades ago.  God forbid someone fill their water glass or empty anything into the hand washing sink.  The other big ticket getter is the employee drink and personal effects category  Don't you dare put your diet shake in the walk in or have your soda within an eye shot of anything served. I never fight the B of H but I can't wait for the new crop, to catch on.

theglobalguy
theglobalguy

So what ever happened to the El Diablo story?  That one just dropped dead...no follow up, nothing after the owner appealed the closure.  Did WW ever try to see what happened?

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

 *** REGULATION WORKS !! ***

hollyjarmstrong
hollyjarmstrong

This also highlights why restaurants should be required to provide sick leave and health benefits to their workers (in addition to increasing base wage to at least minimum wage). Passing norovirus (or other illnesses) will never be completely eliminated but we can certainly help minimize the risk if we make sure workers are not cooking or serving food when they are sick. Many of these workers cannot afford to stay home so they buck up and go to work.

sexyfood
sexyfood

Mchalmers is obviously someone with the health department. Why not come clean about who you are? Easier to hide behind your sterile cubicle? Coward.

mchalmers
mchalmers

Actually if she knew anything current about the situation, she would know that the HD has become MUCH more lenient with restaurants and the new approach to the fines system

mchalmers
mchalmers

Lori was not invited to the recent restaurant/health department meeting, being that she just writes about the food industry.

Frank did not attend, but if he did, he would've been politely asked to keep the conversations between the two private. I'm sure it was Lori who thought she should write something.

atomicspice
atomicspice

I've never been a Frank Bonanno fan, but after reading this, I'm impressed with what he's doing to stand up to the health department. He comes across as likable, smart and cooperative with minimal arrogance. The health department is a menace and seems to definitely have an agenda that goes way beyond standard restaurant inspections. Great writing, informative and thought provoking.

JamesB7
JamesB7

Great story. Thanks...

bobbypinz
bobbypinz

Obviously oldnews didn't read the whole story. Cause that's what it says...that they're working together. And better grab a dictionary for all those tough words. Like "members". The article is brilliant and points out some of the flaws in a system rife with bureaucracy. Just ask any restaurant owner!

oldnews
oldnews

Lori, way to bring up old shit.   Currently the health deparment is working with memebers of Colorado Restaurant Assocaition to make sure they everything is well known between both parties and so that we can work amicably together to make sure that food regulations are resonable and followed.  

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

@hollyjarmstrong ... you'll no doubt eagerly pay HIGHER PRICES for your restaurant outings to cover the cost and expense of Sick Leave and Health Benefits, right?

seejohnedrum
seejohnedrum

@mchalmers Wrong.  New regulations come down all the time.  Holding temps change as do accepted procedures.  Denver has gotten much stricter.  I know.  10 years ago everything was made by un-gloved hands.  Folks like you go to Starbucks with the fucking Flu but freak out if your server has a slight sniffle.

LoriMidsonCafeSociety
LoriMidsonCafeSociety moderator editor

@mchalmers You're right -- I was not invited to that meeting (my understanding is that no press was invited). And that specific meeting to which you refer, and which took place just a few months ago, isn't mentioned anywhere in my story.

LoriMidsonCafeSociety
LoriMidsonCafeSociety moderator editor

@oldnews As the commenter above you pointed out, it would behoove you to read the entire story, which makes it crystal clear that restaurateurs, the CRA and the health department are making strides in working amicably with one another.

 
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