When you head to a local restaurant, do you worry that you might get food poisoning? Probably not and for good reason—restaurants, and anyone else selling food to the public in Benton County, are inspected every six months by a Registered Environmental Health Specialist like Scott Kruger.
Kruger has been working for Benton County since 2005. Food service inspection is a major part of his job, but he also inspects other licensed facilities like hotels and public pools. And his responsibilities don’t stop there—he inspects public groundwater systems serving less than 3,300 people.
With all the inspecting he does, you might expect Kruger to be a frowning clipboard type. That’s not the case at all. He is serious about public health and his job, but he also wants to work with businesses to educate them and help them succeed.
“The main focus of food safety is to ensure we’re protecting the public health and that restaurants are being operated according to the food code,” said Kruger. “But while we’re doing this we’re also helping to protect the restaurant operator’s business… No one wants to be associated with a foodborne illness issue.”
No one wants to get people sick, but who likes to be inspected? “There’s a certain amount of apprehension because I’m the health inspector,” Kruger said, “but I work really closely with my operators. I want them to feel comfortable.” Kruger empathizes with restaurant operators because he worked in food service his whole life up until he was hired as a health inspector.
“I bring a little bit of a different element to the table,” he said. “I could walk into any restaurant I inspect and put on an apron and start serving.”
Kruger works with restaurants to operate according to the food code. Oregon released a new version of the code, or Food Sanitation Rules, in September. It’s based on the FDA Model Food Code, and is uniform across the entire state.
“Some people say the rules are different in Lane County,” Kruger said. “That would not be true. We all operate under the same food code.”
Another common misconception is that the last place a person ate at is what made them sick.
“Let’s say you went to Restaurant A and two hours later you had vomiting and diarrhea,” Kruger said. “There are those times when you could get sick really rapidly, but most people start manifesting within 24 to 48 hours.”
Another part of Kruger’s job is tracking down the cause of illnesses. He said that more often than not he can find something that better fits the timeline than the last thing an ill person ate.
Kruger said the most common outbreak comes from norovirus. An outbreak is defined as two or more people from separate households who became ill from a shared food source. Each time an outbreak investigation has taken place, norovirus has been the cause. It is a gastrointestinal illness that lives very easily on surfaces.
“You touch something, don’t wash your hands, you eat, you get sick,” said Kruger. “It takes very little of the virus to get you very ill.”
To top it off, people still shed the virus for up to 72 hours after their symptoms have gone away.
“It was the thing that was identified in better than 90 percent of outbreaks in our state. It comes from the spread of fecal or vomitous contamination from other people.”
Limiting norovirus and similar illnesses is the bread and butter of food inspections and codes. Oregon food code and inspection focuses on five major categories that the Centers for Disease Control and Protection say contribute to foodborne illness in the U.S.: personal hygiene; food holding temperatures; raw animal product cooking temperatures; equipment sanitization; and safe food sources. Temporary food vendors at events are inspected; churches selling food for a fundraiser are inspected; school lunch programs that receive federal assistance are inspected. So are bed and breakfasts and food carts.
“It’s a big job but it’s a good job and I really, really like it and working with food service operators. I don’t take it lightly,” Kruger said. “It’s a great place to work. I honestly see myself retiring from here.”
What Happens When You Fail Inspection?
Imminent threats—and sometimes those less imminent—to public health like sewage backup or a rodent problem would lead to restaurant closure. Restaurants begin an inspection with a score of 100. Points are deducted based on the category of problems; for example, priority items are worth five points.
“For example, I saw somebody touching raw chicken and then turning around and touching a salad without washing their hands,” said Kruger.
Totaled separately, core items are good retail practices like restaurant cleanliness and good equipment repair.
Kruger said that cleaning and repair issues are common. For priority items, common problems involve keeping hot food hot and cold food cold, sanitizing equipment, and properly storing raw animal products.
“When I cite a priority or priority foundational item, it’s my job to ensure that item is corrected before I leave that facility,” he said. He can then decide whether or not to follow up.
“There are times when I don’t need to come back and the operator has a good handle on it, and there are times when I absolutely have to come back.”
If a restaurant gets less than 70 points, it gets a “failed to comply” sticker. It can stay open but gets re-inspected within 30 days.
“If I come back and those priority items are not resolved, then closure can occur.”
by Lana Jones