12 Secrets of Restaurant Health Inspectors

iStock
iStock

Have you ever found a Band-Aid lurking in your large pepperoni pizza? No? Thank restaurant health inspectors, public health officials who work for city, state, and county health departments to enforce regional food safety guidelines and keep preparation kitchens free from practices that could lead to contamination or food-borne illness.

To find out what it’s like to get a spontaneous look at commercial kitchens, Mental Floss quizzed three inspectors—also known as sanitarians or environmental health specialists—on their duties, from proper cockroach protocol to the simple trick they use to determine whether employees are washing their hands.

Because practices can vary widely by region and even by inspector, this isn’t intended to be a definitive look at food safety protocol—but it will give you a glimpse at what these flashlight-wielding men and women encounter on a daily basis.

1. THEY NEED TO RACE THROUGH A KITCHEN.

Because restaurant inspections are unannounced, the arrival of an inspector can cause a dramatic ripple effect in kitchens that may not be up to standards. To catch as many infractions as possible, inspectors might have to dash through a kitchen the second they walk in before someone destroys the evidence. “The first thing I do is power-walk around the kitchen,” says Taylor, an environmental health specialist based in the South. “We want to see the things that won’t be there in another three or four minutes.” That can include violations involving personal drinks contaminating food prep areas, a lack of gloves, dirty cleaning cloths, or a lack of paper towels at the hand sink. Watching workers try to remedy all this in moments, Taylor says, “is like bedlam.”

2. ICE MAKERS MAKE THEM TREMBLE.

Although virtually any area of an establishment could harbor a problem, there's one area in particular that often invites trouble: the ice machine. “If you're just scooping out some ice, you really aren't seeing any of the important components where mold actually forms,” says Tim, a health inspector based in the Midwest. “Since they don't know where to look, the ice machine can go for very long periods without being sanitized.” Tim also looks at ice chutes on beverage machines because these are often maintained by outside personnel and get cleaned on an irregular basis. “You really need a flashlight and have to turn your head at awkward angles to get a good look inside these machines.”

3. THE NATIONAL CHAINS ARE PRETTY CLEAN.

Viral videos of workers wiping boogers into burgers haven’t done wonders for the reputation of fast food health practices, but Taylor says that major chains are usually pretty adherent to health codes because they conduct their own internal audits on a more regular basis than government inspections, which might only come twice a year. “Your run-of-the-mill mom and pop place won’t pay for third-party audits,” he says. “But a place like Walmart pays a whole lot of money to inspect their bakeries and delis.”

According to Bill Benson, a former private health inspector who has worked with major franchises, it’s about brand protection. “Think of Chipotle,” he says. “It was only a few locations, but they lost hundreds of millions in revenue. Big companies are risk-averse.”

4. THERE’S AN EASY WAY TO TEST FOR HAND HYGIENE.

For most health departments, gloves are considered a secondary barrier between a cook and the food they’re handling—it’s no substitution for handwashing. To check and see if employees are practicing good hygiene, Benson would make a beeline for the paper towel dispenser near the sink and draw a big “X” on the protruding part of the roll. Then he’d come back after lunch. “If the X was still there, it meant no one had washed their hands for an entire shift,” he says.

5. OWNERS CAN GET VERY UPSET.

Having points deducted from a health inspection can mean fines, undesirable letter grades posted in windows, or frequent re-inspection. Taylor says that not every proprietor will take the news of even one minor mistake very well. “I once had one owner of a day care center that prepared food get a 99 out of a possible 100 [score]. She took five steps from me, took out her iPhone, and smashed it against the wall.”

6. THEY DON’T LIKE JEWELRY.

Not in food service, anyway. “Jewelry is considered a contamination risk,” Benson says. “You don’t want something to fall into a food product. Personal items should be segregated from food production.”

7. UNMARKED BOTTLES ARE A VIOLATION.

Plastic bottles full of unknown liquids are a troublesome presence in kitchens, since employees may not necessarily know vinegar from glass cleaner, and cleaning supplies can migrate from supply areas to prep tables. “That’s a high-dollar [fine] in inspections for unlabeled bottles,” Taylor says. “You don’t know water from bleach.”

8. THEY CAN SMELL A COCKROACH PROBLEM.

Insect infestations are a grim reality of the food service industry. Even if a property is cleaned meticulously, deliveries and other outside forces can conspire to introduce cockroaches into a kitchen. After years on the job, Benson could usually tell if there’s a roach problem simply by taking a deep breath. “You get used to the smell,” he says. “It’s nutty and kind of oily. You walk into a building and you just know.”

9. LUKEWARM IS BAD NEWS.

While policies vary widely from state to state, most inspectors make sure restaurants avoid letting food sit out in the Food and Drug Administration’s “danger zone” of between 40 and 135-140°F. “If it’s cold, it’s got to be less than 41 degrees,” Taylor says. “If it’s hot, it should be above 135 degrees. Anything between that, microorganisms can start growing in food.”

10. BEWARE OF BUFFETS.

If you think allowing the general public access to mounds of food for self-service purposes might not be the most hygienic practice in the world, you’re probably on to something. “It’s not even a restaurant’s fault,” Taylor says. “I’ve seen kids sticking their hands in there, grabbing handfuls of fries."

11. THEY DON’T LIKE TO EAT AT PLACES THEY INSPECT.

It’s not about the hygienic practices—of lack thereof—they’ve witnessed. Taylor says that doubling as a customer invites its own ethical issues. “If you give them a low score, they might come back with, ‘Well, you had a sandwich here last Tuesday, we can’t be that bad,’” he says. “I’ve also gone to places just for a beer and they’ve brought me fried pickles on the house. I can’t accept those. You can’t be bribing a health inspector with fried pickles.”

12. LEMONADE STANDS ARE OUTSIDE THEIR JURISDICTION.

While school cafeterias, public pools, and even tattoo parlors can be part of their rounds, health inspectors generally don’t get to harass curbside bartenders. “It specifically states in the [local] food code that children under 12 are allowed to sell non-perishable food products on the streets or on front lawns,” Tim says. Buyer beware.

All images courtesy of iStock.

Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

Funko
Funko

Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

SIGN UP TODAY: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping Newsletter!

Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 Secrets of Epidemiologists

Epidemiologists are fans of charts.
Epidemiologists are fans of charts.
metamorworks/iStock via Getty Images

Unless you know an epidemiologist or are one yourself, those “disease detectives” might not have occupied a very large portion of your brain. Last year, that is. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic at the top of mind—and at the top of so many headlines—there’s a good chance you’re at least aware that epidemiologists study diseases.

To be more specific, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines epidemiology as “the study of the distribution and determinants of health-related states or events in specified populations, and the application of this study to the control of health problems.” So what exactly does this mean? Mental Floss spoke with a few epidemiologists to shed light on what they do, how they do it, and which germ-friendly foods they avoid at the buffet.

1. People often mistake epidemiologists for skin doctors.

Since the word epidemiologist sounds like it might have something to do with epidermis (the outer layer of skin), people often think epidemiology is some offshoot of dermatology. At least, until the coronavirus pandemic.

“Prior to that, no one knew what I did. Everyone was like ‘Oh you’re an epidemiologist—do you work with skin?’” Sarah Perramant, an epidemiologist at the Passaic County Department of Health Services in New Jersey, tells Mental Floss. “I would be rich if I had a dollar for every time I got asked if I work with dermatologists.”

2. Epidemiologists don’t discover a new disease every day.

Though some epidemiologists do look for unknown diseases—certain zoonotic epidemiologists, for example, surveil wildlife for animal pathogens that might jump to humans—most are dealing with diseases that we’re already familiar with. So what do they do every day? It varies … a lot.

Epidemiologists who work at academic or research institutions undertake research projects that help determine how a disease spreads, which behaviors put you at risk for it, and other unknowns about anything from common colds to cancer. But it’s not just about devising experiments and studying patient data.

“I like to tell my friends and family that my job is about four different jobs in one,” Dr. Lauren McCullough, an assistant professor in the department of epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, tells Mental Floss.

Writing, she says, is “the most important part.” It includes requesting grants, devising lectures and assignments, grading her students’ work, writing about her research, and more. She also sits on admissions committees, reviews other epidemiologists’ studies, and oversees the many people—project managers, data analysts, technicians, trainees, etc.—working on her own research projects.

Those who work in the public health sphere are often monitoring local outbreaks of diseases like the flu, Lyme disease, salmonellosis, measles, and more. If you test positive for a nationally notifiable disease (any of about 120 diseases that could cause a public health issue), the CDC or your state health department sends your electronic lab report to the epidemiologist in your area, who’s responsible for contacting you, finding out how you got sick, and telling local officials what steps to take in order to prevent it from causing an outbreak.

3. Epidemiologists have to make some uncomfortable phone calls.

At least the person on the other end can't see your expression of consternation.Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels

Epidemiologists sometimes have to ask pretty personal questions about drug use and sexual activity when trying to figure out how someone got infected, and not everyone is happy to answer them. “I’ve gotten hung up on many a time,” Dr. Krys Johnson, an assistant professor in Temple University’s department of epidemiology and biostatistics, tells Mental Floss.

Some simply aren’t willing to accept that they might have been exposed to a disease without knowing it. After several employees at a certain company tested positive for COVID-19, for example, Perramant started calling the rest of the workers to tell them to go into quarantine; this way, she could prevent sick people who weren't yet showing symptoms from spreading the disease without knowing it. But not everybody was open to her advice. “They would just swear up and down, ‘I haven’t been in touch with anybody who’s positive, please don’t call me again,’” Perramant says.

But there are plenty of cooperative people, too, especially victims of foodborne or diarrheal illnesses. “They really want to know where they got sick because they’re so miserable that they never, ever want to deal with that again,” Johnson explains. Parents of sick kids are also generally forthcoming, since they want to keep their kids healthy in the future. And then there are those who don’t have any problem spilling their secrets to a stranger.

“There was one woman who was very memorable,” Johnson says. “I called her about her Hepatitis C, and she was like, ‘Oh, honey, I did drugs back in the ’80s. That’s where I got my Hepatitis C. I pop positive every time!’”

4. Epidemiologists deal with a lot of rejection.

Public health epidemiologists have to learn to just shrug off all the rude tones and dial tones, and epidemiologists in academic settings need thick skin for different reasons.

“There’s just a lot of rejection,” McCullough says. “‘That idea isn’t good enough; this paper isn’t good enough; you’re not good enough.’ That is just a resounding thing. There’s a high bar for science; there’s a high bar for federal funding; and it takes a lot to cross that bar. So in the academic setting at these top-tier institutions, you really just have to have a thick skin.”

5. Just because epidemiologists' guidelines change doesn't mean they're wrong.

Sometimes, McCullough explains, the story of a disease can change over the course of one study. When you look at the first 100 people in a 10,000-person study, you’ll see one story emerge. By the time you’ve seen 1000 people, that story looks different. And after you’ve seen the data from all 10,000 people, the original story might not be accurate at all.

Usually, epidemiologists can complete the whole study of a disease and draw conclusions without the world clamoring for half-baked answers. But with a brand-new, highly infectious disease like COVID-19, epidemiologists don’t have that luxury. As they’ve learned more about how the pathogens spread, how long they can survive on surfaces, and other factors, they’ve changed their recommendations for safety precautions. Everyone else in the world of epidemiology expected this to happen, but the general public did not.

“If we say something this week that contradicts what we said last week, it’s not that we were wrong,” Johnson says. “It’s that we learned something between those two time points.”

6. Being an epidemiologist would be easier if people kept better track of their behavior.

Often, people omit vital information about how they got exposed to an illness because they just don’t remember all the details. You could easily recall devouring a few slices of the decadent chocolate cake your mom baked for your birthday last Friday, but you might not be able to name every bite of food you ate on a random Thursday three weeks ago.

“People aren’t telling us the whole truth, but it’s not that they’re being intentionally obtuse,” Johnson explains. “With recall bias, unless there’s a reason for us to really remember, we’re not going to remember everything we actually ate.”

This has made it especially difficult to trace an aerosolized disease like COVID-19.

“All my friends going into the Fourth of July were like, ‘Should we have a get-together?’” Perramant says. “And I said, ‘You can have people over, but you better take an attendance list. You better have a little spreadsheet on Google Drive that has every person’s name and their phone number, so that when one person tests positive and gets sick this week, when I call you, you will be able to give me that information like that.’”

7. Epidemiologists have reason to be wary of buffets, cruise ships, mayonnaise, and cubed ham.

It's all fun and games until someone eats warm egg salad.Tim Meyer, Unsplash

Infectious disease epidemiologists may have accepted that germs are a part of life, but they also know where those germs like to congregate.

“I don’t go to buffets, I have never been on a cruise ship and I don’t intend to, I’m super conscientious when I fly,” Johnson says. “And I’m really aware of whenever mayonnaise-based things are put out at family functions. If you’re ever at a potluck and people come down sick, the first thing people say [they ate] is potato salad or egg salad, because mayonnaise can spoil so quickly.”

“[Cubed ham] is one particular microbe’s very favorite thing to multiply on, so if you’re gonna have ham, make it a whole ham,” she says.

8. Teaching people is a really rewarding part of being an epidemiologist.

In addition to actually leading lectures in the classroom, academic epidemiologists also work extremely closely with their students on research projects; McCullough estimates that she’s in contact with hers at least once a day when they’re collaborating on a study.

“To work with someone so closely, and to watch them progress as a scientist and as a person, and then to have to let them go and send them out into the world, I find that very rewarding,” McCullough says of her trainees. “As a scientist in an academic institution, there’s not a whole lot of immediate gratification. Our papers get rejected, our grants don’t get funded, but the trainees are always a source of immediate gratification for me, so I hold them close to my heart.”

Epidemiologists in other spheres have teaching opportunities, too. When a community experiences a disease outbreak, public health epidemiologists like Perramant are responsible for helping the general public understand what they can do to prevent the spread.

“I like to teach kids about infectious disease and infection prevention for what’s relevant to them. We’ve had a couple of large outbreaks at summer camps, and last summer I put together a training for camp counselors,” Perramant says. “That’s always a part of my job that I really love.”

9. Epidemiologists have a unique understanding of racial disparities.

At this point, it's exceptionally clear that COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting people of color in the U.S. They're more likely to be exposed to it, they have less access to testing, and the preexisting conditions that place them at a higher risk can be the result of systemic racism. When these trends started to become apparent, McCullough got flooded with phone calls asking why. Her answer? This isn’t new. As she’s seen in her work as a breast cancer researcher, Black women are more likely to die of that disease than their white counterparts, and similar health disparities exist across the board.

McCullough explains that the general public is finally realizing what epidemiologists already knew: That poor disease outcomes in minority, low-income, and rural populations aren’t because of anything those people are doing on an individual level. Instead, it’s a result of systemic issues that keep them from leading financially comfortable, healthy lifestyles with access to healthcare and other resources.

“It’s not just COVID—it’s almost every single chronic and infection ailment that’s out there,” McCullough explains. “So this is a real opportunity for people to step back and take an assessment of where we are in terms of our healthcare system, and what we’re doing so that everybody has equitable outcomes. Because people shouldn’t die just because they live in a rural area, or just because they’re poor, or just because they’re Black or Hispanic.”

10. They've had to deal with a lot of “armchair epidemiologists” lately.

Until this year, epidemiologists had to suffer through people mistaking them for dermatologists. Now, during the coronavirus pandemic, people finally know at least a little about their jobs. In fact, people are so confident in their newfound epidemiological knowledge that many are fancying themselves experts on the subject.

“At the beginning of 2020, there were like 500 epidemiologists, and now there are about 5 million. Everybody thinks they’re an epidemiologist,” McCullough says. “There’s a science to it, and it’s a science that requires training. We went to school for a really long time to be doctorally trained epidemiologists.”

It’s not just about advanced degrees, either. Beyond that, you need years of firsthand experience to grasp all the nuances of understanding methods, interpreting data, translating your findings into recommendations for the general public, and so much more. In short, you can’t just decide you’re an epidemiologist.

Perramant has her own analogy for the recent influx of self-proclaimed epidemiologists: “It’s like armchair psychology. Poolside epidemiology now is a thing.”