When the health department inspectors knock on the door, Blue Talon Bistro Chef Scott Hoyland welcomes them into the restaurant.
From an outsider’s perspective, the relationship of the health department and a kitchen staff may be viewed as a contentious one. Depending on the day, it may be. But they both have the same goal, Hoyland said: safety.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 48 million people in the United States get sick every year from foodborne illnesses. Of those, about 128,000 are hospitalized and approximately 3,000 deaths occur. And a large number of foodborne illnesses go unreported, said Gary Hagy, the Peninsula’s environmental health manager.
In Virginia, about 5,000 people reported having a foodborne illness in 2016. Of the 10 reportable foodborne illnesses, there were 32 reported cases in Williamsburg, 20 reported cases in York County and 21 reported cases in James City County, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health.
“So what the health department does in doing the inspection is get another party to look at the practices within an establishment,” Hagy said. “You’re dealing with human beings who make mistakes at times. (They) overlook things and sometimes don’t pay as close attention to what they’re doing and how they're handling food and don’t realize what they’re doing is putting the food at risk for bacterial growth and therefore possibly infecting people.”
Residents and tourists who choose to eat out in Williamsburg, James City and York counties have about 175 full-service restaurants to choose from — and eating out is big business. In 2018, restaurants collected $7.6 million for Williamsburg, $7.2 million in meals tax for James City County and $6.5 million for York County.
A full-service restaurant is defined as a sit-down establishment where food is served directly to the customers' table. But the health department also inspects any establishment that serves food, such as convenience stores, delis, coffee shops, food trucks and schools.
By Virginia law, every establishment is inspected for food safety at least once a year. Six people are assigned to inspect Williamsburg, James City and York counties, but two of those positions are unfilled.
In addition to restaurants, they also are responsible for inspecting hotels and campgrounds; they also handle environmental complaints, swimming pool inspections and rabies control and confinement.
As far as restaurants go, the department’s work gives diners an assurance that what they’re about to eat is safe and that the risk of getting sick is minimized, Hagy said. Without regulation, food safety would be under the sole discretion of the operator.
Peninsula Environmental Food Specialist Nick Minter said inspectors look for whether food is stored at a safe temperature, for a safe amount of time, proper sanitation, general hygiene and employee health as part of routine inspections.
How are they tested?
Restaurants aren’t graded and can’t be categorized as passing or failing. Food establishments are evaluated on a three-tier violation system. Priority violations, the most severe, are most associated with foodborne illness, such as food held at the incorrect temperature or in unsanitized equipment. These violations must be fixed within 72 hours and are often solved immediately.
“Those are the violations that if they’re left uncorrected, they could directly lead to someone getting sick,” Hagy said. “We try not to leave a facility with priority violations still in effect. Sometimes it may mean disposing the food or moving the food from a refrigeration unit that’s not working to one that is.”
Priority foundation violations are issues that may lead to priority violations if unaddressed, such as a broken sanitation thermometer, which tests the sanitation levels of cleaning supplies. Owners have 10 days to fix those violations.
Core violations, the least severe, are not directly associated with potential foodborne illness and are often categorized as minor sanitary issues or problems with the physical structure of a facility. These may include improper hair restraints or missing ceiling tiles, and owners have 90 days to make the corrections.
The Virginia Department of Health conducts food safety inspections by assigned health districts. The Peninsula District, which includes Hampton, Newport News, Poquoson, Williamsburg and York and James City counties, has more than 1,400 food service establishments that qualify for a routine annual inspection.
Restaurants are put into four categories based on the level of risk their food preparation processes present. Although they have the same guidelines for inspection, they may be visited by inspectors less or more frequently based on their potential risk.
Typical full-service and some fast-food restaurants are categorized by the department as Risk 3 establishments, which means they encourage three inspections a year, but still only legally require one.
A Risk 4 establishment may serve a vulnerable population, such as a nursing home or have specialized cooking processes, such as curing. Four inspections a year are encouraged, but only one is required.
Risk 2 restaurants may include schools, most fast food restaurants and delis. Two inspections a year are encouraged, but only one is required.
Risk 1 includes food trucks and coffee shops.
“We categorize all our restaurants based on the type of operation they have and then based on that, it sets up a recommended frequency,” Hagy said. “It depends on how complex their menu is, how much handling they’re doing. Based on their track record, they may get hit more often.”
Inspectors drop by restaurants unannounced.
In 2018, the 175 full-service restaurants in Williamsburg, James City and York counties were inspected 492 times. Those restaurants had an average of five violations, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health.
This is normal, according to Hagy, and it’s important to remember some food establishments are subject to more frequent and more intensive types of inspections based on their risk factor. That means more violations may show up.
Hagy said the department only revokes or suspends food permits in the district once or twice a year, after multiple, repeated violations.
“There’s no penalty as far as like a fine. If they accumulate, we look at the total picture and decide ‘OK, is this facility possibly endangering the public’s health?’,” Hagy said. “We try to get their cooperation to fix those issues. If they aren’t able to or they don’t, then we can suspend the permit to operate.”
What standard are restaurants held to?
State regulations are based on the Federal Food and Drug Administration Food Code, so all states meet the same basic requirement. This code is updated every four years, with small changes added every two years.
Chef Hoyland said he welcomes the health department visits as a way to stay up to date on changes.
“As chefs and as restaurateurs, we want to be abreast of the new, latest and greatest things in making sure that we’re doing things properly. We have a lot of people that we feed and we don’t want to put anyone in danger,” Hoyland said. “It’s a good continuing education.”
According to VDH, Salmonella was the most frequently reported foodborne disease in Williamsburg and York County in 2017. These types of diseases can be addressed with restaurant food safety measures, Hoyland said. In 2016, Salmonella was added to the list of infections that food establishment employees, if infected, must report to the person in charge.
“They’re always changing and updating safety with eggs and cream and that sort of thing — that’s more prevalent now with the Salmonella,” he said. “What kind of products you can use has to be from approved purveyors.”
Food establishments are also required to have employee education on changes in food safety regulation. As of July 2018, they are required to have at least one management employee who is a Certified Food Protection Manager, accredited through a specific program.
Restaurants are confronted with new food safety challenges all the time — such as cellphone use in kitchens — which are best addressed through the collaboration of chefs and the health department, Blue Talon Chef Dale Dykhuizen said.
“What needs to happen is a partnership between businesses and health inspectors,” Dykhuizen said. “It shouldn’t be adversarial. We’re working together for the same goal.”
How local restaurants fared on their Virginia Department of Health inspections.
Martin can be reached at (757)-243-3685, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @SaraRoseMartin.