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"Under the current administrative citation structure, we've seen a significant decrease in the number of Type 1 [critical violations] per inspection," says McDonald. "The decrease in Type 1 violations should benefit the department, industry and, most important, citizens, since these types of violations are most often associated with the incidence of foodborne illness."

Still, despite what Meersman sees as "progress" — and he stresses that Lee, McDonald and Doug Linkhart, appointed by Mayor Michael Hancock to head the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, "deserve credit for working with the CRA on solutions" — he says there's still room for improvement. "The concern that I hear most from operators is the lack of uniformity from one inspector to another," says Meersman. "If you have four restaurants in Colorado, each of which is in a different health district, you should be given the same process, the same results and same interpretations. There needs to be more consistency with results and outcomes, because when there's a lack of uniformity, it begs the question for the need of certification and/or training for the people conducting inspections."

There are more than 10,400 restaurants and drinking establishments in Colorado, which are expected to generate more than $9.4 billion in sales in 2013. As a home-rule city, Denver has its own regulations and food-safety programs, but "we try to mirror state regulations where possible," McDonald says, adding that there are program policies and continuing-education requirements that "facilitate a high degree of consistency between inspectors in terms of how regulations are applied." Even so, he adds, inspectors "all have the authority to use their professional judgment in determining when a situation deviates significantly from the intent of the regulations."

Lee, who worked at quick-service restaurants and as a bartender before she was hired by the city, maintains that she's "very confident that we have a more consistent staff than we've ever had." The city's twelve inspectors all must have "some type of biological- or environmental-science degree," she says, and while the department hires at the entry level, new inspectors do have to pass a test that's administered by the city. "I don't think you have to work in a restaurant to understand the demands of this job," she continues. "It's a lot more important to understand food safety and how foodborne illness occurs — the biology background — and while it's not my job to tell someone how to be a chef, I do have expertise in food-safety analysis."

Meersman hopes that those inspectors are using their knowledge wisely. "The state and local health departments, including Denver, are providing a service to the restaurants and the public, and in almost every case, they're working with restaurant operators to ensure appropriate sanitation levels and food safety, and in almost every case, they'll provide education to operators and staff," he notes. "But there needs to be more collaboration, cooperation and education — a willingness on the part of the inspector to work with operators on educating their staff to ensure food safety."

McDonald, however, insists that he and his department are already focusing on education. "None of our staff is evaluated on the basis of the number of critical violations they document, or the amount of fines from their reports," he points out. "They're evaluated on how much education they offer during an on-site inspection, and we offer classes quarterly to try and promote that."

He suggests that operators, too, can benefit from a positive working relationship with inspectors. "It always helps to take the regulations seriously. They're in place for a reason," he notes. "We're not out to get anyone — we don't control your business, and it's not because we want to generate revenue. It's because these are the accepted standards in our society, and our society thinks that food safety is important."

And so does Bonanno, although he worries that Denver's system doesn't focus on the right things. "We need to get back to having a partnership and working together," he says. "We have to use common sense, because the world isn't black and white like the health-department regulations. All I want is for inspectors to understand what's egregious, do their jobs professionally and nicely, explain what's going on during the inspection process, and keep up to date on product knowledge."

Recently, 730 South was inspected by the city. An open — but capped — bottle of water that belonged to one of the cooks was stashed in the refrigerator. The inspector who found it "asked me to imagine a tornado in my refrigerator and a cap that wasn't on tight, making the bottle spill into the food that we cook," Herz says, and the restaurant earned a critical violation for that infraction. "That's a ridiculous reason for a fine. There's no common sense anymore," he adds.

And to drive the point home, he notes that his former health inspector, now retired, "is one of my best customers."

**********

And there will be more challenges. Herz and Bonanno, along with numerous other restaurateurs throughout Colorado, are now sourcing fruits, vegetables and meats from local farmers and artisans, hand-crafting their own cheeses, curing their own meats and using a wealth of other artisanal products. "The regulations aren't keeping up with what's new," Bonanno says, citing cheese as a prime example. "Why is the health code such that age-ripened cow's-milk cheese — a cheese that's aged in a cave and was made in such a way that it stops the bad mold and propagates good mold — can't be served at room temperature, even though we allow it to come into the country that way and it's meant to be served at temps that aren't frigid?"

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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 editortopcommenter

@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 editortopcommenter

@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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