Cockroaches are an unwanted sight in a restaurant, but there’s a better chance that improper food heating, cooling and storage methods will make diners sick.
Research into which food safety rules are most linked to foodborne illness is giving Twin Cities restaurant inspectors new tools to target unsafe kitchen activities that put customers particularly at risk. Inspectors for Minneapolis and St. Paul found more than 4,800 such violations at about 1,500 restaurants last year, according to a Star Tribune analysis.
“Each time you have one of these, that’s like buying a … ticket to the foodborne illness lottery,” said Dan Huff, environmental health director for the city of Minneapolis.
The foodborne illness risk factors, outlined by the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control, are a smaller subset of rules than those deemed “critical” under the state’s food code. They center on inadequate cooking, food kept at the wrong temperatures, dirty equipment, food from unsafe sources and poor personal hygiene.
Minneapolis has recently begun analyzing those violations more closely, hoping to give them priority in determining which restaurants need extra attention. The Minnesota Department of Health is also crafting updates to the state’s food code that would give the most weight to violations that could lead to illness.
Not having a plumbing device that prevents a sink from sucking up dirty water is a critical violation, for example, but it is not considered a top risk factor for illness. Cooling a vat of hot soup too slowly, however, is both a critical violation and a foodborne illness risk since it can lead to bacteria growth that sickens customers. The new approach would prioritize the soup temperature over the sink.
Minneapolis’ analysis comes after the city revamped its food inspections in the wake of a poor 2010 state audit. It now has eight more inspectors who speak a multitude of languages and spend more time on educating restaurant employees. A re-evaluation from the state this winter resulted in perfect or near-perfect grades.
“We got a lot better as inspectors, which means we got a lot stricter,” Huff said.
The number of illness-risk violations has dropped, based on the city’s preliminary review. In 2014, inspectors doled out six or more such violations to 61 percent of the city’s restaurants. In 2015, only 9.4 percent of restaurants received that many.
Case studies from 2015 show that restaurants cited for the most illness-risk problems were largely in compliance by the end of the year, which is why the Star Tribune is not publishing a full list.
The city hopes to release food inspection data online later this year to give the public real-time insight into restaurants’ performance.
The Star Tribune requested all the illness-risk violations issued in 2015 to restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul, which is overseen by the Minnesota Department of Health. The most common problem by far, with more than 900 violations, was not storing potentially hazardous foods below 41 degrees. Those foods include meat, seafood, rice, eggs and cooked vegetables.
Other common violations include failing to mark the date on potentially hazardous foods to ensure they are consumed within seven days of preparation and allowing mold to build up inside ice machines.
Shifting the focus to violations more likely to sicken diners puts the spotlight on different restaurants. Among the 20 Minneapolis restaurants that had the worst scores under the existing system, based heavily on “critical” violations, just seven also made the top 20 list of illness-risk violators.