CINCINNATI - It was a quiet lunch shift at China Buffet in Eastgate on May 3. About two dozen diners picked at their won ton, dim sum, Szechuan chicken and Mongolian beef, unconcerned that the buffet-style restaurant led the Tri-State in 2015 food violations.
“I thought it was a good restaurant,” said Bonnie Gould of West Union. On her way out the door, Gould said she had no problems in about a dozen prior visits.
China Buffet’s managers were not available for comment and haven’t returned several emails and phone calls. But Clermont County inspectors had plenty to say about China Buffet in 130 violations last year.
“Tongs used to bread chicken were stored on a dirty wall pipe,” said one report from August 31.
“Mouse feces was found in the dry storage area,” said another note on Sept. 2.
Clermont County initiated the process of license revocation last September, leading to a corrective action plan in January. Since then, inspectors have noted improvements in cleanliness and temperature controls. The most recent inspection May 3 produced no violations.
Located in a strip center between Wal-Mart, Sam’s and Jungle Jim’s International Market, the Asian restaurant at 4631 Eastgate Square Boulevard is one of 21 buffet-style eateries that had at least 20 violations in 2015, according to a WCPO analysis of nearly 40,000 food-safety infractions.
Two buffets rank in the top 10 of 2015 restaurant violators in this year’s Dirty Dining list, which ranks restaurants on the number and severity of food-safety violations. WCPO ranks restaurants with a scoring system that counts one point for non-critical violations and three points for critical citations. Critical violations include food held or cooked at improper temperatures, hand-washing violations, pest problems and other lapses that can make people sick.
Buffets lead all restaurant categories with an average of 40 points per restaurant. That means they received about triple the violations of pizza parlors and restaurants specializing in fish and chicken.
Why the disparity?
“On buffet lines, there’s a lot going on,” said Rob Perry, Clermont County’s director of environmental health. “There is a lot more food prep. They’re preparing meals today that are going to go on the buffet tomorrow. So, there’s a lot more opportunity for things to go wrong, for violations to occur.”
Perry said health inspectors tend to keep a close watch on buffet restaurants because they feature food that can turn hazardous if they’re not displayed at the proper temperature.
“On the other hand, with pizza, if you think about it, they’re putting a bunch of ingredients onto a piece of dough and sliding it into the oven at 400 degrees,” he said. “It comes out the other end and goes to the customer in a cardboard box that doesn’t come back to the kitchen for washing, rinse and sanitizing.”
This is the fourth year that WCPO has compiled a regional database of restaurant violations. It’s the only place where you’ll find restaurants ranked by the number and severity of violations. It’s the only searchable database where you can find violations from six local jurisdictions.
New to the list this year are results from Springdale, which doesn’t post its records online but maintains them with software from HealthSpace, a state-sanctioned vendor that several departments use. WCPO obtained Springdale’s data from a public records request to the Ohio Department of Health.
As in past years, the Dirty Dining list includes violations from the city of Cincinnati, Clermont, Warren and Hamilton counties in Ohio and the four counties regulated by the Northern Kentucky Health District – Boone, Kenton, Campbell and Grant. The list includes grocery stores, convenience stores, school cafeterias and concession stands at local stadiums and arenas, same as in past years.
This year, WCPO mined the data to see how different kinds of restaurant cuisine compare in the number and severity of food-safety violations. As we compared Asian, Indian, steak and chili parlors, we noticed a trend: Buffets ranked near the top of every cuisine category where they compete for customers.
So we searched for all buffet-style restaurants and found 21 locations with 552 violations, 152 of them critical. They included 11 roach-related citations, 6 for rodents, 48 related to food temperature and 46 for dirty equipment.
“Two food employees did not wash hands before donning gloves,” a Clermont County inspector documented at Golden Corral #874 in Batavia on Oct. 28.
“Observed frass (residue from wood-boring insects) and several live roaches,” a Hamilton County inspector wrote in an October 27 visit to China Garden Buffet at 1107 West Kemper Road.
Chicken wings, lo mein and soft-serve ice cream “were not being held at the proper temperature,” wrote a Springdale inspector July 30 at Jade Buffet on Princeton Pike.
The 21 buffet-style restaurants in this year’s Dirty Dining database had an average of 24.9 violations and 39.7 points per restaurant. That compares to an average of 6.7 violations and 10.9 points for all 5,921 food-service locations that received at least one violation last year.
Comparing different kinds of cuisine, only pizza parlors and restaurants with “fish” in the name scored below average in point values. Chicken joints, chili parlors and sushi spots round out the top five, all with fewer than 17 points per restaurant, on average.
Complications in the Kitchen
There are several reasons why buffet-style restaurants tend to have more health inspection violations than other formats, said O. Peter Snyder. Snyder is president of Snyder HACCP, a food-safety consulting firm near St. Paul, Minn.
• First, buffet restaurants are easy to operate, he said.
"You don't need a lot of labor so people who are just getting into the business go to buffets," Snyder said.
That means the restaurant owners can be people with less experience at meeting health codes.
• Not only that, buffets have the complication of leftover food, he said.
"You have to cool it, and you have to resurrect it the next day," Snyder said. "That leads to complications in the kitchen, and they end up with far more violations."
• Often immigrant families get into the restaurant business through buffet restaurants because family members can easily staff and operate them, he said.
"The countries they come from do not have the same levels of food safety and security that we do," Snyder said.
It can take a generation or two of ownership to learn those expectations so that they're part of how the restaurant is run, he said.
• Buffet table equipment can be tricky, too, he said.
Pans full of food that is hot on the bottom and cool on top are not good in the world of health inspections, he said.
For the food to be kept at the proper temperature all the way through, the buffet table should have hot, moist air above the pans so the food is the correct temperature and doesn't dry out, Snyder said.
• Ideally, a buffet operator should throw out the food that has been sitting on the buffet table before replacing it with a clean pan of fresh, hot food, he said. But many restaurant employees just scoop the new food on top.
"The whole thing of holding food hot is poorly done," Snyder said.
That's why it's generally safer to eat at restaurants that prepare each order fresh and don't have leftovers to try to re-use the next day, he said.
It's part of the reason that pizza restaurants and chili parlors were among the types of restaurants that had fewer violations in WCPO's analysis, he said.
But the other reason for that is: The simpler a restaurant's kitchen, the less room there is for error.
Most pizza places use cans of sauce — rather than making sauce fresh from scratch — and the other ingredients are often purchased sliced or shredded and packaged for easy preparation, he said.
That means there are fewer steps in the kitchen that can go wrong.
Plus, restaurants that primarily bake food instead of frying it are easier to keep clean, he said.
Restaurants that buy fresh ingredients — such as many Thai, Chinese and Japanese restaurants — have a lot more going on in their kitchens, which makes it more difficult to keep those kitchens clean, Snyder said.
That doesn't necessarily mean that restaurants should be shunned if an inspector finds some dirt, he said.
Filth isn't what makes people sick, he said. People get sick from eating food that is stored at improper temperatures or food that is handled by people who don't wash their hands properly after going to the bathroom.
"The cockroach on the floor," he said, "once it's cooked to 140 degrees, that's just more protein in your diet."
How we did it
Restaurants were ranked based on the number and severity of violations. Critical violations, meaning those linked to food-borne illnesses, counted for three points each. Noncritical infractions counted for one point.
The Northern Kentucky Health District takes a similar approach to its scoring system for food inspections, attaching up to five points for the most severe violations. Minnesota-based food safety consultant Peter Snyder reviewed WCPO’s methodology and said it’s fair to rate restaurants on both the number and severity of their violations.
Not every jurisdiction designates violations as critical or noncritical, so we matched records according the section of state code that was cited. For example, the database includes 145 violations of an Ohio code section – 3717-1-03.2(A)(2) - that prevents employees from touching “ready to eat” food with their bare hands. Clermont and Hamilton County classified those violations as critical, so we attached the same designation to the city of Cincinnati’s citations of that same code section.
Additional information on any particular restaurant can be found by searching online records at each local health department: