How safe is your favorite restaurant?

Several Boone County restaurants have a history of critical health code violations, even after repeated warnings.
Thursday, June 17, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:30 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 14, 2008

Walk into Hong Kong Restaurant on any given day and you’ll find an appetizing atmosphere: jade-green tables, crimson paper lamps and a well-stocked buffet of fruits, vegetables and popular Chinese dishes. While the lunch hour is typically the restaurant’s busiest time, a steady stream of customers files through the door late into most evenings.

It’s hard to ignore the customers’ contented looks as they enjoy the buffet selections. But their expressions might change if they knew what local health inspectors know about the restaurant’s history.

With 44 critical violations in 2003 — an average of nine per inspection — Hong Kong Restaurant tops the list of problem restaurants in Columbia and Boone County.

It’s certainly not alone in its struggle. The Missourian’s computer analysis of 333 restaurants’ inspection scores last year by the Columbia/Boone County Health Department showed that 15 sites had more than 10 critical violations even after several visits by health inspectors. The analysis tracked how many critical violations restaurants committed and looked for recurring patterns. Top offenders included both home-grown establishments and chain restaurants. The list reads like a Yellow Pages directory of some of the more popular places in town. Other restaurants had fewer violations during each inspection but nevertheless were repeat offenders.

The good news is that local restaurants that comply with regulations far outnumber those that don’t. But for consumers, who should be able to trust that the food they’re eating won’t harm them, it’s a hit-and-miss proposition.

Raw meat prepared in mop sink

The health department has shut down Hong Kong Restaurant, 106 Business Loop 70 W., nine times since 1995. The most recent closing was in November, when inspectors found 23 critical violations in a single inspection.

Critical violations pose a direct health threat to consumers, increasing the risk for disease outbreaks from parasites, bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella and viruses such as Hepatitis A.

One of the violations at Hong Kong Restaurant was particularly troubling: “Employee preparing raw meat in a dirty mop sink.”

Another worker that day was cited for smoking while peeling potatoes in a hallway. Inspectors also found that the restaurant stored food at improper temperatures and failed to prevent cross-contamination of raw shellfish and vegetables and to properly sanitize equipment and surfaces.

The problems were similar to what inspectors had seen before at the restaurant. And once again, Hong Kong Restaurant was closed until manager Jenny Cheng and her staff could fix the problems.

Cheng, a mother of three, said she works 12 to 14 hours, seven days a week, to keep the 10-year-old Columbia restaurant running. Yet she acknowledged her business has had its problems.

Last summer, after an already lengthy history of run-ins with the health department, inspectors threatened to call a public hearing and permanently revoke Hong Kong Restaurant’s license. The department’s July letter to the restaurant noted a background that included complaints about roaches and rodents and improper food handling. While the hearing was never held, environmental health manager Gerry Worley said, “The process for evaluating them for that is still ongoing.”

Cheng, whose comments were translated by an employee, disputed the violations for which her restaurant has been cited, especially those related to cleanliness.

“Every day we clean things here twice a day,” Cheng said, adding employees also regularly clean and monitor the serving line.

Cheng also said her restaurant has been a victim of complaints by unscrupulous customers. One, she said, tried to extort $1,000 from her by threatening to report a roach in her food.

“We knew she was a bad customer,” Cheng said. She said the woman placed the roach in her food. She said investigations that follow such complaints put her at a disadvantage.

“If a customer complains about the food, they’ll close us down without talking to us,” she said. “I have a problem with that. We have a lot of customers who’ve never had problems.”

Although Cheng was nervous about criticizing the health department, she said there are times when she feels her business is treated unfairly.

“Our restaurant has a lot of business between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.,” she said. “The inspectors usually come in during rush hour. They never inform us when they’re coming, and we know they do that with other restaurants.”

Worley said the health department hopes to see more improvement from the management at Hong Kong Restaurant . Inspectors cited the restaurant for one critical violation this past January: Melons on the buffet weren’t chilled. Workers corrected the situation promptly.

Cheng said many of the other problems for which she’s been cited, especially those related to food temperatures, are common to restaurants like hers.

The Missourian’s analysis backs her up to some degree. It shows that restaurants have the hardest time maintaining proper heating and cooling temperatures for meats, poultry and dairy products, and for prepared dishes. A total of 140 violations were documented for the year in this area alone. Food-temperature and food-handling problems can promote bacteria or provide a comfortable home for parasites.

Worley said establishments with a lot of food items, such as buffet-style restaurants, usually have the most trouble staying up to code in this area. Not surprisingly, four of the top five restaurants on the Missourian’s list — Hong Kong Restaurant, Perkins Family Restaurant, India’s Rasoi (now known as India’s House ) and TP’s Bar & Grill (now known as Fat Otter’s Street Pub) — all serve buffet-style meals.

“It’s an ongoing problem,” Worley said. “Rarely are you going to completely resolve that issue.”

Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said some restaurant workers simply don’t know proper procedure.

“Sometimes, if they keep having the same problem, you might have to restrict what they serve (temporarily) so they won’t continue having the violations,” Benjamin said. Such measures give health officials time to educate restaurant owners and their employees, he added. Other violations seem easier to control. For example, although the food code prohibits employees from eating, drinking or using tobacco in food preparation and serving areas, 54 incidences of such behavior were documented by inspectors in different establishments last year.

All food handlers must undergo certification training in Columbia, where they learn how to avoid practices that get them in trouble with inspectors.

Pat Bergauer, vice president of the Missouri Restaurant Association, said most restaurant operators take public health concerns very seriously.

“I think most people try very hard to operate good restaurants,” Bergauer said. “Everything they’ve got in their life is tied up usually in these restaurants, and occasionally things will happen, just as they do at home. But those who are really bad operators, they shouldn’t be in business.”

'It's not a numbers game'

Would-be customers were probably surprised last October to find the doors locked at Perkins Family Restaurant, 1000 I-70 Drive S.W., because of several code violations. The problems included improper storage of foods such as eggs and pancake mix, dirty serving equipment and open containers of food placed in restricted areas. Workers also were cited for failing to wash their hands. And several employees, including managers, lacked the required food-handler documentation.

One entry in the October inspection report read: “Sewer line is clogged and backing up all over floor on the cook line.”

Perkins had a total of 18 critical violations during its Oct. 9 inspection and a total of 20 for 2003, placing it second on the Missourian’s list of top offenders. The restaurant has since changed general managers. Asked about Perkins’ progress in meeting health department standards, current general manager Nina Sturdevant said she “wasn’t at liberty to discuss that information.”

The Columbia/Boone County Health Department temporarily closes restaurants with 10 or more critical violations or 25 or more non-critical violations at inspection. Worley said his agency settled on those numbers after surveying other departments. But according to the state’s food safety program manager, no set standard exists. For example, in other U.S. cities, five critical violations are enough to close a restaurant.

“Really, there is no set number of critical violations that would determine whether an establishment is going to be closed or not,” said Mary Fondrey of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. “It really would depend on the situation as far as what sort of health risk is created by a particular violation.”

Benjamin agreed.

“The most important thing (for inspectors) is to look at restaurants from a risk perspective,” Benjamin said. “This is not a numbers game. It’s a public-safety issue.”

Benjamin said health officials must determine the relative risk a particular violation presents. In other words, while cities and counties can establish numerical guidelines for violations, inspectors often use discretion in applying the rules.

“There may be a place with one violation serious enough for closure,” he said. “Once you’re clear on what the relative risk is, you have choices.”

Worley said his inspectors use that discretion.

“There are a number of things on their own merit that would be deemed serious enough to justify immediate closure,” Worley said. Among them: lack of potable water and suitable ways to wash dishes, inadequate cooling equipment, sewage on the floor, or any other “gross unsanitary occurrence” believed to be significantly harmful to the public.

Worley said restaurants, such as buffets, that have more fresh food items to handle are usually inspected three times a year. Others usually are visited twice a year. That doesn’t include follow-ups to routine inspections.

“Hopefully we can educate and enforce the regulations such that they don’t continue having problems,” he said. “But if we run into the same problems over and over, then we have to go to management.”

All restaurants are given time to address violations, regardless of whether they’ve been shut down. Repeat violators with a history of closures can be brought before the department director for a public hearing and threatened with permanent closure, although the health department hasn’t taken that action in several years. No public hearings took place in 2003, but Worley said the threat is usually enough to ensure restaurants comply.

County has no licensing requirement

Cassandra Turner cited KFC at 3212 Clark Lane in October for violating several provisions of the city’s food code. The violations ranged from mouse feces and flies in preparation and serving areas, to employees failing to wash their hands properly. Several staff members also lacked food-handler cards.

Although the number of violations wasn’t high enough to close the place, Turner returned twice that month. On the second visit, she reported ants had infested the restaurant.

By end of the month, the problems were corrected, Turner said.

“We fine them $100 each additional time we have to return,” she said.

Turner is one of eight inspectors serving Columbia and Boone County. As a team, they’ve seen it all.

“I have plenty of war stories,” Worley said, though he declined to detail specific experiences. “I recall finding 68 violations in one place. It can be frustrating at times.”

Although Worley expressed satisfaction with the department’s staffing, he said they could use help with licensing. Columbia restaurants are required to have operating permits before opening, but no such provision exists at the county level. As a result, restaurants have popped up like weeds in outlying areas without inspectors’ knowledge. Worley said statewide licensing could help solve that problem.

“Yes, we would like a licensing requirement,” he said. “In the county, we got our database by literally driving down the road and finding places.”

Worley will probably have to consult a higher power to make that wish come true.

“You would have to ask our legislature about that,” said Fondrey of Missouri’s health department. She said legislators have tried and failed in the past to change restaurant licensing requirements.

Despite the challenges, the Columbia/Boone County Health Department is respected statewide for its aggressive efforts to educate and root out food handlers who jeopardize consumers’ health, said Bergauer, vice president of the Missouri Restaurant Association. Still, some local eateries slip through the cracks. The reasons for chronic noncompliance vary, but the fact remains that restaurants are responsible for ensuring the welfare of their patrons.

The Food and Drug Administration produces national guidelines, called the Food Code, to help state and local governments design their regulatory programs. States typically incorporate Food Code regulations into their statutes and include any changes the FDA makes. The state health department adopted the last FDA Food Code update in 1999. City and county health departments use the state’s code as a guide.

A 1996 report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, said standards aren’t always followed. The report documented how some agencies randomly choose which FDA recommendations to follow. Others don’t manage to inspect restaurants more than once a year, while some agencies don’t require consumer warnings for raw food. Still others complain that they lack the money and staff to do their jobs well.

Unlike 16 other states, Missouri doesn’t require food handler certification training, but Columbia does. And with no state licensing requirement, it’s up to cities and counties to adopt regulations for restaurants and food-service workers.

Fondrey said the FDA didn’t include language about certification training in the 1999 Food Code update. Thus, state regulations won’t require it anytime soon.

“Really the intent of (the Food Code) is to make sure that managers have the proper knowledge to run a food establishment correctly and safely, and that can be done with other means than just food-handler certification,” Fondrey said.

Fondrey said one thing managers can do is to prove at inspection time that they know how to run their business.

“They may not have the certificate, but they are demonstrating (compliance) by the actions they take,” Fondrey said.

Bergauer, of the restaurant association, said the enforcement of food safety certification depends on the staffing, financial resources and laws that govern city and county health departments.

“What you have is the cities and counties are allowed to make qualifications themselves,” Bergauer said. “And you’ve got some that do it, and some that don’t do it. We believe it would be better for everyone to do it.”

While the association supports the idea of state-mandated certification training, Bergauer said it wants all food handlers, not just restaurants, but also hospital workers, street vendors, nonprofit organizations and everyone who serves food to have it.

“If we go statewide, that’s what is necessary,” she said. “You can’t pick and choose people who handle food consumed by the public. Our industry doesn’t feel there should be any exemptions to it.”

With the help of colleges and health departments statewide, the restaurant association runs an accredited voluntary training program called ServSafe for restaurant managers and other food handlers.

The city of Columbia requires restaurant managers to participate in ServSafe and to renew their certification every five years. It also changed its ordinances three years ago based on the state food code, and it added the requirement that all food handlers undergo food safety certification training. Local restaurants also have to apply for operating permits.

Bergauer said those actions are exemplary. “I think you’ve got good leadership in that health department, and that’s really what it takes,” she said. “They don’t cut you any slack, and that’s a good thing for the public.”

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