So A Few Hundred Restaurants Could Have Some Rats Running Around. Is That a Big Deal?

Categories: Food News

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Early this week, NBC 5 DFW reported that hundreds of Dallas restaurants have not been evaluated by city inspectors. The story cited an understaffed department, mismanagement and budget concerns for the failure.

Specifically, 241 restaurants that fall in the inspection department's jurisdiction have not been checked out for more than two years. That's about 4 percent of the 6,000 restaurants, bars and other fixed location food service businesses that serve Dallas every day. According to city guidelines, which are based on FDA recommendations, restaurants are supposed to be inspected twice every year.

I spoke with Code Compliance director James Childers, who was featured in the TV report, earlier this week to gain some perspective. If 4 percent of the restaurants have not been inspected at all in more than two years, does that mean the remaining 96 percent are up-to-date on inspections?

"The 241 restaurants were locations that we could not find any record of inspection for that time frame," Childers said. "Everything else had a record of inspection during that time frame." But that doesn't mean the other restaurants were inspected according to Dallas guidelines. In fact, only 20 percent of Dallas restaurant had been inspected twice in the last year according to a recent update to NBC's report.

I don't like the idea of hepatitis in my salsa, as the NBC report warned might happen, so I also asked Childers how many reports of food borne illness his department has handled in the past year. He told me in 2011, 117 complaints came to his department. Note these aren't confirmed cases of illness caused by a restaurant. These are just complaints that can be filed by anyone, ranging from "I saw a rat out back behind the Dumpster" to "Man, that potato salad really did a number on me."

So, how many complaints is that per meal served? I called Jack Perkins at Maple and Motor and asked him how many customers he serves a day. He said he averaged about 400. That's a lot of burgers! Then I called McDonald's on Lemmon Avenue and a manager told me they served about 300 people a day.

Since I don't have the time to call every restaurant in Dallas, I thought I'd throw City Hall a nice easy lob, and say that every business serves 100 people a day, 312 days a year (that's if they closed one day a week). With 6,000 restaurants you'd end up with 187 million meals served every year in Dallas.

Suddenly, receiving only 117 complaints sounds like a stellar accomplishment -- if you assumed that everyone who got a food-borne illness in Dallas called City Hall to complain about it after calling their doctors for treatment. You'd also have to assume that Code Compliance picked up the phone and logged all the complaints. And just because there aren't many complaints, doesn't mean our meals are safe.

NBC's report called Dallas' process a bogus food inspection program, but added that many large cities are having similar problems. Two years ago, Dallas had 23 inspectors, but layoffs and employes who have quit eliminated 10 of those positions. The inspection problems could be as much a resource problem as a management debacle.

With 13 inspectors on payroll, each would have to carry out five inspections a day to keep on top of every Dallas restaurant, assuming they take two weeks vacation, 10 holidays, and never get sick from eating the burgers they're inspecting. Is that a lot?

Childers said inspectors can handle four to five inspections a day (depending on the size and location of the restaurants) unless there are serious violations that require additional inspection and reporting. Inspectors also have to address complaints immediately, and violators have to be revisited to assure a restaurant has fixed any problem the inspectors find. Childers said he's hiring more staff, and job offers have been made to five new inspection officers and an additional supervisor to try to address the workload.

The biggest concern is the lack of consistency applied across the restaurants. If the city doesn't have the resources to keep up with existing guidelines, those guidelines should be revisited. Resources and workloads should be visited too.

I called the FDA to see what they thought about all this. Siobhan Delancey, spokesperson for the agency's Office of Public Affairs, told me their published regulations are only model legislation. Local municipalities can interpret them as they see fit. But while the FDA prints hundreds of pages on how to inspect a restaurant, it doesn't offer any official guidance on how to prioritize which restaurants to inspect when resources become tight.

Fort Worth has 13 inspectors that have to cover 2,100 restaurants, though their inspections include other potential health and safety issues at food trucks and special events. Their inspectors use a risk-based model to prioritize their inspections. Fast food restaurants and other establishments that assemble prepackaged food are considered less risky than restaurants that handle raw meats, so they don't get inspected as often.

Childers told me that while they attempt to inspect every food establishment twice annually regardless of how they prepare their food, they prioritize by focusing inspections on schools and other establishments that serve high-risk populations (children in particular) and locations that have received complaints or scored poorly in a previous inspections.

While they are looking similar sized cities that utilize the risk-based approach, Childers says it is too early in the process to say whether or not they will adopt this type of model.


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ShinerBocker
ShinerBocker

I managed a high volume non-franchise Dallas restaurant for 6 years. The trouble with some sanitary conditions is that many of the employees are new immigrants and do not have common sense when handling food products. We gave our employees food safety courses in Spanish every 6 months and the next day they would still do things that would get flagged by the health inspectors. It just amazed me the lack of concern over common sanitation by some of these workers like just washing their hands.

CR
CR

Most people just don't go back to crappy restaurants.  I didn't complain against Dickies BBQ on Preston Rd & Beltline when I puked up their bbq sliced fat sandwhich. 

2m03cmman
2m03cmman

There are, however, people who will go back to some real cesspools though.  Like an above poster said, I have a friend who is a delivery truck driver for Sysco and always wonders why Sweet Georgia Brown, various Chinese Buffets, and others haven't been closed yet. 

CR
CR

 Chinese buffets are notoriously unsanitary.  The last straw was puking up General Tsao all night long after dining at Red Peppers in Denton.  I now make my own Chinese food and enjoy it a helluvalot better.

Dung Pie
Dung Pie

Hey!  I had a similar reaction the last time (which was the last time ever) I ate at that same Red Peppers restaurant in Denton.   Let's just say my mouth was not the orifice which was doing the puking and leave it at that.

seymour
seymour

dallas should use a rating system like california.  they post signs on the doors, giving "grades" to each restaurant.  even the 7-11s are not immune- the signs are posted anywhere that serves food.  while there could be a lapse in cleanliness, seeing an "A" posted on a restaurant's door gives me a bit of peace.  any restaurant owner knows getting a "B" or a hellish "C" could ruin his/her business, so i would imagine they'd want to keep it clean.

2m03cmman
2m03cmman

Toronto uses a similar system except its colored placards- green (good/excellent), yellow (borderline), and red (look out).  You can see them from afar, but there are also inspector's notes on the placards too, such as the score and if the place was shut down on a previous inspection and/or failed, requiring a re-inspect.  Either system would likely be opposed fiercely by the local restaurant association.

Gues
Gues

Clearly what we need is more deregulation.

cynical old bastard
cynical old bastard

You can always check out your favorite restaurant after dark around the dumpsters.  If you see feral cats there is a good chance any rat population is being kept under control. 

therrick
therrick

Is the same staff also doing the inspection of grocery stores?

CheeryBitch
CheeryBitch

My father-in-law was a food delivery driver. He could tell you which grocery stores to avoid, as in never set foot in there, ever; don't even buy the prepackaged food. Some were that bad.

2m03cmman
2m03cmman

If you check 'restaurant scores' online on the City Hall website, they check all schools, hospital kitchens, grocery stores, and everywhere else that does food.  A friend of mine has a food truck and they check those as well.  I've seen them out at Taste of Dallas too, so I guess they do special events.  The NBC story was an eye opener, but definitely too sensational to rile up the ratings.

Kergo 1 Spaceship
Kergo 1 Spaceship

They typically have a rotation, or beat to patrol....they most always check special events (food trade shows, Taste of Dallas, etc.)

CR
CR

you are so right and only found out after I ordered my bbq fat sandwich at Dickey's on Preston & Beltline.  nastiest bathroom & bbq. NeverAgain.org!

Kergo 1 Spaceship
Kergo 1 Spaceship

The only exception being Allsup's.  I'd NEVER "poo dere", but I eat that stuff.....ahhhh, guilty pleasures!

ScottsMerkin
ScottsMerkin

If I cant shit there, I cant eat there, Im excited to follow this

Kergo 1 Spaceship
Kergo 1 Spaceship

Yup, check the bathroom, or take a glance around back-you'll know. 

2m03cmman
2m03cmman

None of that was mentioned in the NBC article (except for Ft. Worth).  ;D

As a rule of thumb though, check the bathroom if you're not sure about whether to eat somewhere or not.

Kergo 1 Spaceship
Kergo 1 Spaceship

This is a really good piece; but do the contents of said investigative journalism really surprise any of  us?  We know that Dallas infrastructure is overwhelmed.  We know rats exist. It's like this in any medium to large size city.  Hopefully there is a basic morality in preparing and storing foods in these establishments. Heck, restaurants know the likelihood of the health inspector showing up in Dallas county is slim.  On the flip side, these inspectors are not dumb, and they can tell by approaching an establishment if problems will exist.  Trash, debris, rusty steel racks, etc. are all clear giveaways to problems, along with open doors, grease spots by the backdoor, and scurrying about when when said inspector actually steps inside said establishment.  

-I think most restaurants TRY to be sanitary, and clean.-The local health inspectors do a good job, based upon what they have to work with.

I guess I never go to places that would be considered fringe dirty?

therrick
therrick

You do, you probably just don't realize it. I remember when the Whataburger at Greenville and LBJ was torn down and rebuilt. My place of business got a major influx of rats. The pest control guy said that happens all of the time.

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