Dirty Dining: Tri-State health inspectors check scores of details to keep public safe

FLORENCE, Ky. - To get a better understanding of what health inspectors look for when they visit local restaurants, WCPO Digital asked to tag along on an inspection.

The Northern Kentucky Health Department agreed to take a reporter on a mock inspection of the White Castle on U.S. 42 in Florence one afternoon in May.

The restaurant, which scored a 95 out of 100 on its regular inspection in January, volunteered for the extra scrutiny.

Over the course of about an hour, Ted Talley, the department’s environmental health manager, walked through a typical inspection to help us -- and the public - understand their job and what they look for during the usually surprise review of cleanliness, safety and procedures. 

Talley checked dozens of details related to over-arching problems related to employee health and hygiene, proper food handling and temperature controls.

Education And Enforcement

He first checked the restaurant’s paperwork regarding certified food handlers and then asked whether the store had gotten any deliveries that day or whether any employees had been sick.

Every inspection, he said, provides an opportunity to remind restaurant managers and employees about the importance of food safety and the proper steps to take.

Employees must check food temperature on all deliveries, for example, and sick employees should not be going to work until after their symptoms are gone for at least 24 hours.

Next, Talley looked into the restaurant’s large walk-in freezer. All food was off the floor, as required; the condenser was working properly, and the temperature was well within the appropriate range.

A walk-in freezer at the White Castle on U.S. 42 in Florence.
Lucy May | WCPO Digital

The day of the mock inspection, a bag of frozen chili was thawing in one refrigerator, while eggs were stored apart from other food in another. Employees had a separate bin in the refrigerator for food they brought from home, which Talley said the health district likes to see.

“It’s very well organized with good placement,” Talley said. “We look to see: Is the unit cool enough? Is the condenser line clear? Is there water pooling at the bottom?”

If any of those elements is out of whack, Talley said, bacteria could build up on food and potentially make people sick.

Talley then inspected the kitchen’s dry storage.

He looked inside two different refrigerators, noting that most of the food arrives at the White Castle fully cooked.

“I tend to start looking around crackers,” he said. “Rodents get into crackers and cookies.”

But there were no signs of rodent problems.

Talley checked the date of a bag of nacho cheese and made sure it didn’t have to be refrigerated – which it didn’t.

Sometimes suppliers run out of a product that a restaurant usually orders and bring something different to substitute. If the substitute product needs to be refrigerated – when the regular product doesn’t – that can cause problems, Talley said.

“This all looks good,” he said.

Hygiene, Proper Temperatures Are Critical

Talley turned to make sure employees were using their gloves properly and washing their hands as they should.

“We check it out without making anyone too nervous,” he said. “We can learn a lot by having a conversation with one of the employees doing the work everyday.”

General Manager Dawn Velazco said she requires her employees to watch a food safety training video every six months – just to refresh their memories about requirements.

As rigorous as the health department’s standards are, she said, the White Castle corporate standards are even more stringent.

Talley used an ambient thermometer to check the temperature of the holding area for fries and inserted a separate thermometer into a burger to make sure it was cooked to a hot enough temperature.

Northern Kentucky Health Department Environmental Health Manager Ted Talley checks the ambient temperature in the french fry holding area.
Lucy May | WCPO Digital




Talley checks the temperature of a burger.
Lucy May | WCPO Digital


“We make sure cold food’s cold and hot food’s hot,” he said. Hot food must be at 135 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter and cold food at 41 degrees or colder.

Velazco said White Castle corporate rules require her employees to take the temperature of various foods once an hour.

Next Talley looked at the ice machine, iced tea maker and the nozzles on the soda machine to make sure everything was clean. He checked the creamer to make sure it was cold enough, too. It all checked out.

Health inspectors check the temperature on this creamer.
Lucy May | WCPO Digital

Then he examined the restaurant’s three-compartment sink where employees wash dishes, rinse them and dip them in sanitizer before allowing them to air dry, as the health department recommends.

Talley also looked at the mop sinks and made sure cleaning chemicals were stored away from the restaurant's food preparation area.

Beyond Home Standards

This White Castle location passed every test.

“We have some

people tell us, ‘If I wouldn’t eat it myself, I wouldn’t serve it,’” Talley said. “But we’ve got to go a step above that.”

Restaurants serve the general public, he noted, including people whose immune systems are compromised by age, a pre-existing health condition or medications they’re taking.

And that makes each glove, every temperature reading and all those details in a health inspection critically important.

Velazco was pleased with the mock inspection’s results, although she wasn’t surprised. After all, she saw her health inspector come in for lunch earlier this year after he had inspected another establishment.

“You know you’re doing a good job,” she said with a smile, “when you see an inspector eating at your restaurant.”


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