Dirty Dining 2014: Health inspections at Tri-State restaurants show troubling trend
How safe is your favorite food source?
Dan Monk , Lucy May , Mark Nichols
3:00 AM, Mar 13, 2014
CINCINNATI - David Yang had a rough year with a Hamilton County inspector whose “by-the-book” approach led to 41 violations at his Forest Park restaurant, China Garden Buffet.
“The new guy really gave us a hard time,” said Yang, a 14-year industry veteran who owns a second restaurant in Springboro. “We keep cleaning every day, and he’s still not satisfied.”
Hamilton County records show the violation count hit a four-year high at Yang’s 206-seat China Garden Buffet on East Kemper Road. Two violations were for sushi stored at too high a temperature. Inspectors found dead cockroaches four times, including twice under the buffet line. On Oct. 10, live roaches were observed near the dishwashing area.
Yang said the restaurant doubled its pest-control treatments to twice monthly over the summer and never had a customer complain of food-related illness.
China Garden Buffet passed its most recent inspection with no violations on Jan. 9, leading Yang to conclude: “Finally, he recognized that most restaurants are not as clean as us.”
Yang is not alone in his frustration.
A WCPO analysis of restaurant violations from the city of Cincinnati and six local counties found ethnic restaurants tend to have higher violation counts per inspection than casual dining, fast food and other restaurant categories.
This is the second year that WCPO has pulled restaurant inspections from health departments around the Tri-State into a single searchable database. In addition to Cincinnati, the records come from Clermont and Hamilton counties in Ohio and Boone, Kenton, Campbell and Grant counties in Kentucky.
This year’s database includes 32,474 violations at 5,579 food-service facilities. Last year’s totals had 33,000 violations at 5,000 facilities. Unlike last year, however, grocery stores are included in the list of violators. In fact, two of them – Bethel IGA and Kroger’s store #435 in Loveland - rank among the region’s top 10 violators. Both stores said they take inspections seriously and try to resolve issues as quickly as possible.
Four of the top 10 in total violations – including Batavia Station at 600 W. Main St. in Batavia – are out of business. And just like last year, a review of the data shows Chinese, Hispanic and Indian restaurants rank among the region’s top violators.
WCPO took at deeper look at the region’s top violators. WCPO used restaurant descriptions from the online site, Yelp, to designate restaurants in various categories, including fast food, ethnic, casual and fine dining. Among the findings:
Facilities described as ethnic restaurants had the highest number of total violations (933), and the highest violation rate (averaging 36 violations per facility).
There were 26 ethnic restaurants among the 106 with 25 or more violations. The casual dining category had 29 restaurants in the top 106. The average violation count for casual dining establishments was 32.
Restaurants described as serving Asian cuisine had the highest violation rate among ethnic eateries, followed by those described as primarily serving Mexican/Hispanic, Italian and Mediterranean cuisine.
Hamilton County’s top restaurant regulator said the discrepancy does not reflect bias on the part of regulators, but rather an educational challenge that inspectors try to overcome with the help of translators and food-safety classes.
“Sometimes, you look at restaurants in other countries, they’re not up to the same sanitary standards we are,” said Jeremy Hessel, director of Environmental Health for the Hamilton County Public Health Department. “It’s an immigrant culture. They might be used to doing it one way, whereas the code requires a different way.”
Hamilton County offers food-safety courses on a regular basis. One of its instructors is fluent in Spanish. The agency sometimes hires interpreters to work with restaurant owners who don’t speak English. More often, it relies on family members and restaurant employees to convey their concerns.
'There For a Reason'
The issue is not just a Tri-State concern.
Ethnic restaurants across the country tend to rack up violations during public health inspections, often at a higher rate than their non-ethnic counterparts, industry experts told WCPO.
There has been no definitive research examining why that is, said O. Peter Snyder, president of SnyderHACCP, a food safety consulting firm near St. Paul, Minn. His opinions are based on more than 40 years in the industry.
Snyder said he thinks the reason is because so many new immigrants to the United States choose the restaurant business as a way to support their families.
“One of the best ways to start a life in the U.S. is to start in the food business,” he said. “And you don’t want to spend one more penny than you need to.”
Or, as Hispanic Chamber Cincinnati USA President Alfonso Cornejo put it: “It’s an entry way to the American dream. You cook the food that you are good at, the food you know.”
New immigrants often buy older restaurants that include older equipment that works but might be more difficult to keep clean, Snyder said.
Neither the age of the facility nor the equipment should be a barrier to getting a good inspection, said Ted Talley, environmental health manager for the Northern Kentucky Health Department.
“Before we would open up the restaurant, we would make sure it was meeting all current standards,” he said.
Talley said there can be language barriers and cultural differences with the operators of ethnic restaurants, particularly if they are new immigrants to the U.S.
To help with that, the federal government has food safety posters available in dozens of languages, Talley said. And the Northern Kentucky Health Department has bilingual employees who can accompany inspectors during restaurant visits if necessary, he said.
Restaurants run into repeated problems when owners are slow to change to meet an inspector’s standards, said Mel Kramer, president of EHA Consulting Group, a food safety consulting firm based near Washington, D.C.
“They can be resistant to changing the way they cook and handle food from the way it was in the old country,” Kramer said. “It takes two. They have to be a willing partner.”
He said some restaurant owners complained to him in the past about the number of times their businesses were being inspected in the city of Hamilton.
Cornejo said he hasn’t heard those complaints for several years, and the restaurants could have been getting inspected so often because they had lots of problems to address.
“The health regulations are there for a reason, and we should all be following them,” he said. “If they have a restaurant in Nicaragua, they operate with Nicaraguan laws. If they operate in the U.S., they operate under U.S. laws. There’s no question.”
Education, Enforcement Key
Still, there can be major cultural adjustments for restaurant owners and operators who are relatively new to the U.S.
“It’s a matter of education,” said Robert Lam, manager of Homer’s Original Smorgasbord in Evendale and the son of the restaurant’s owners.
Homer’s doesn’t serve ethnic cuisine, but Lam’s parents are first-generation immigrants from China.
“Some of these are people who came to this country didn’t speak any English, and now they own a business,” Lam said. When it comes to the health department’s detailed rules and regulations, he said, “they might think, ‘What’s the big deal?’”
Judy Mak, owner of Uncle Yip’s Seafood & Dim Sum in Evendale, said some of her kitchen workers are from China, and she had to educate them about why it was important to follow all of Hamilton County Public Health’s rules.
“Their standards are different,” she said of the Chinese employees. “They need to learn more.”
Snyder said that in his experience, those different standards often apply to dirt that is tolerated in a restaurant or how long food is kept to avoid waste.
“They are very conservative and come from countries where they don’t waste things like America does,” Snyder said of many of the immigrant restaurant owners he has encountered.
“The ethnic people are all very good people. They work harder. But they’re starting on a thin penny,” Snyder said.
Such restaurant owners can get violations for things like cracks in the walls, dirty uniforms or flies, he said.
“Most of those things represent filth, not food safety,” Snyder said. “Dirt doesn’t make you sick. It’s feces from not using the toilet paper right and not washing your hands after you use the toilet.
Corporate Chains Spend More on Compliance
Talley said he thinks it’s unfair to generalize about restaurants based on the ethnicity of their cuisine or owners.
But he added that corporate-owned chain restaurants often have an advantage over smaller family-owned restaurants, which would include many ethnic eateries.
That’s because the big corporations have detailed training and procedures for employees to follow that are designed to meet health department guidelines, he said.
“Smaller, family-owned restaurants don’t have those corporate resources,” Talley said.
Resources in general could be a factor, Cornejo added.
Immigrants operating a restaurant often count on a small, core group to run the business, he said.
“Ethnic restaurants operate with a bare bones structure,” Cornejo said. “People who run ethnic restaurants primarily are the owners and their families. And they’re extremely stretched, not only for cooking but for everything.”
– WCPO Reporter Jane Andreasik contributed reporting and photos. WCPO Multimedia Producer Brian Niesz designed the slideshow and searchable database.