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Behind the Swinging Doors: A Day in the Life of a Maine Restaurant Inspector
02/15/2013   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

You might remember this, from the British sitcom Fawlty Towers. Inspector, in a huff:  "Refrigerator seals loose and cracked!  Ice box undefrosted, and refrigerator overstocked!"  Innkeeper:  "Say no more."  It's the classic, comedic stereotype of a white-gloved health inspector making life miserable for struggling innkeepers. But with one in six Americans falling ill to potentially deadly food borne illness each year, state health inspectors aren't joking around. In Maine, thousands of kitchen inspections must be conducted by a relatively small crew of state-certified inspectors, who say their role is not to upbraid kitchen staff, but to educate. Jennifer Mitchell recently joined one food inspector on a surprise visit to a busy kitchen in western Maine to see what really goes on behind those swinging doors.

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Behind the Swinging Doors: A Day in the Life of a
Originally Aired: 2/15/2013 5:30 PM
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 Duration:
4:38

Food inspection 2

Maine restaurant inspector Laurie Davis peers at a slicing machine in a Maine restaurant during a recent visit.

There's no doubt about it:  It's a bit disconcerting when a state health inspector shows up in the middle of a busy lunch rush. The dining room is packed; there's a convention assembling in the banquet room.

It might be the worst time to have a health inspector prowling the premises. But, says inspector Laurie Davis, gone are the days when the tools of the trade were just a clipboard and a frown.

"We are there to work with the food establishment," she says. "We are there to keep Maine's restaurants and all sorts of other facilities as safe as possible, and to help them do that - and to have a profitable business."

To put things into perspective, Mainers will consume hundreds of thousands of meals this year at the state's nearly 8,000 eateries, from hotel dining rooms in Portland, to Downeast clam shacks, to Amish bakeries in Aroostook County. More than 17 million hot lunches will be eaten in school cafeterias. And thousands more will munch blooming onions and doughboys from 400-plus fairground booths.

Food inspection 5All of these dining spots have one thing in common:  They're all inspected by the same 15 state-certified health inspectors, at least every other year. Davis herself travels over 10,000 miles each year, and inspects everything from the chop suey and canned corn served in the middle school cafeteria, to the prime roasts at the state's top ski resorts.

She starts her inspections at the hand sink. "They've got soap, they've got paper towels," she notes.

So far, the restaurant is doing fine.  But Davis is just getting started.

"I'm just going to walk around," she says, "and look at everything."

"Everything" includes the dishwasher, floor, mops, and all the refrigeration units full of prepped vegetables and pans of pulled pork - and other things.

Laurie Davis:  "Excuse me - can I just ask a quick question? What is this right here?"

Kitchen Voice:  "Those are - it's like - maple wood?"

Laurie Davis:  "That's maple wood?"

Kitchen Voice:  "It comes with the salmon when - I think that is - I...it might be labeled on the other side."

Laurie Davis:  "On the other side?"

Kitchen Voice:  "Should be."

Food inspection 3It should be, but it isn't. Davis makes a note of that, then moves behind the line, where the heat from the grill is fierce. She sterlizes a pointy silver temperature probe.

"Just poke it right in there, into that shrimp," she says. "And we're looking for a temperature that's 41 or below. And we are right at 41 degrees there."

Forty-one degrees is the upper target temperature at which a kitchen can safely hold chilled items; higher than that, and bacteria can rapidly multiply. The shrimp are fine. But then, after carefully sterilizing the probe again, she pokes it into a sliced tomato. "We're at 65 degrees on these," she notes. "I'll have to ask some questions about that."

The warm tomato slice is a critical violation. The restaurant also gets a second critical violation for old grunge on the meat slicer. These sorts of things could get someone sick, says Davis, and should be corrected right away - which the kitchen manager does.

Then Davis watches as a batch of chicken, which was not cooked to at least 165 degrees, is discarded.  And she also points out that several coolers don't have thermometers in them.

The inspection is very thorough. Davis tests the PH level in the sterilization buckets. She looks at people's hands to see if they're wearing rings, which can harbor bacteria. She checks to see that hair is covered and that gloves are being worn. The restaurant gets a passing grade on all of these points. She even checks to see if the beverages being sipped by kitchen staff have lids on them.

Some of the details may seem a bit nitpicky, but the kitchen manager says she welcomes the scrutiny, "because I have 800 things on my plate so that it's, you know, we're slipping a little on this," she says. "And it keeps me on course and so forth, and I welcome her. You know, it's a good thing to have."

Despite a few black marks, the kitchen passes inspection. A restaurant can have up to three critical violations and still pass. In this case, all the major problems Davis found were corrected on the spot. While Davis says she does believe that the state's statistics on food borne illness under-represent the problem, she says she is confident that Maine's professional kitchens are among the safest in the world.

"I don't think anybody should be afraid to go out and eat in a Maine restaurant," she says. "I really don't."

Photos by Jennifer Mitchell.

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