There are few joys in life as satisfying as a juicy hamburger and a beer from your favorite restaurant after a long day. It’s tough to top the sensation of a precisely peppered patty dancing on the palate, the sweet tang of your favorite sauce and the refreshing crunch of fresh lettuce. In crafting the perfect burger, time and temperature controlled for safety foods were handled safely to ensure they can be enjoyed worry-free. The beef or lettuce can transmit foodborne illnesses if improperly handled. But most people are more worried about whether to order the soup or salad than if they will contract a stomach bug from the tomatoes.
That confidence is thanks in large part to the eight inspectors of the Fargo Cass Public Health Environmental Health Division. The inspectors work hard to ensure nearly everything you eat, whether it’s from a grocery store, a convenience store or in a school lunch, is up to FDA standards and beyond.
“When I’m inspecting, I ask myself, would I let my child eat there?” said Laura Baum, an Environmental Health Practitioner with Fargo Cass Public Health.
What does one of these inspections look like? That’s a bit of a trick question, according to environmental health director, Grant Larson.
“Hardly any inspection is the same since each establishment has different managers and is in a different space,” explains Larson.
Inspections can be announced or unannounced, and depending on the establishments, inspections can be required a minimum of three times per year. The role of inspectors on these visits is less of an enforcer and more of an educator. For example, during a recent unannounced inspection, Baum noticed ice being dumped in a handwashing-only sink. She let the restaurant’s manager know this is potentially hazardous since bacteria from used ice can manifest in the sink and splash up during hand washing. Baum turned this risk, albeit small, into a learning opportunity.
The scope of what inspectors look for during their visits is incredible. They can check up to 56 different categories of compliance in a visit. They examine nearly everything from employee hygiene to cooking utensils to the source of ingredients. Inspectors then make request corrections if anything doesn’t meet standards.
Not only are inspectors examining many things, but they also have to check into a huge pool of establishments. Fargo Cass Public Health inspects more than 900 restaurants, liquor stores, bakeries, schools churches and more.
Establishments are divided into three different tiers, depending on how complex their food operation is. For example, a bar selling pre-packaged foods like frozen pizzas would fall into the first tier. These establishments are inspected once per year since they pose the lowest risk of food mismanagement.
Second-tier establishments include any location which prepares, cooks and immediately serves food. Tier two establishments are inspected at least twice per year. Tier three establishments prepare, cook, serve, cool and reheat food, and must be inspected a minimum of three times per year. Keep in mind, these are minimums, and inspectors can check in on restaurants more than thrice per year. This means thousands of inspections must be completed each year to ensure the visitors and residents of Fargo can safely enjoy whatever they want to eat.
In order to accommodate that many inspections, the role of environmental health professionals must transcend the bounds of nine to five. Restaurants and other eateries operate before and after standard business hours, Monday through Friday, and inspections are conducted accordingly.
Inspectors are equipped with a menagerie of tools and instruments to help evaluate kitchens. Baum carries a food thermometer to check holding and cooking temperatures, as well as a disk to place in hot dishwashing machines to ensure water is steamy enough to kill pathogens. After a quick rinse, the disk is taken out, and an internal thermometer relays the temperature to Baum. Other establishments use chemical-based dishwashers. In those instances, Baum utilizes a test strip to check the washer for optimal chemical balance.
Inspectors can have every tool in the world at their disposal, but it wouldn’t matter if they couldn’t communicate with restaurant management. It’s clear inspectors care about building a rapport while offering corrections. This strategy pays dividends over an authoritarian approach.
“We find that most establishments are great to work with and eager to learn,” said Larson.
So the next time you scour the menu at your favorite diner, fretting over which side pairs better with the beef rather than concerning yourself with the safety of your dishes, know this is thanks to the teamwork of restaurant management and of the Environmental Health inspectors of Fargo Cass Public Health.