In describing his work in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and early 2000s as an environmental health specialist for the Howard County Health Department, Joe Cross painted a picture that was reminiscent of the wild west.
Back then, as he conducted restaurant inspections, many of the controls that still are enforced today simply weren’t understood by restaurateurs. Simply put, unhealthy practices were rampant just a few decades ago. Violations still occur, with the health department conducting hundreds of inspections a year, but to Cross, health standards are much more ardently followed today.
Each year, every facility distributing food — from restaurants and food trucks to gas stations and grocery stores — undergo a minimum of two health inspections a year. More are performed if serious enough violations occur.
So far this year, nearly 500 health inspections have been carried out by Cross and fellow environmental health specialists in Howard County.
“We’re protecting the public,” said Cross. “That’s why we exist. So if we run into an establishment that has problems, we may go back as many as five, six, seven times. They may pay a fine. They usually end up on probation. We’ll go along and do many, many inspections.”
When inspectors arrive at a facility, they perform an in-depth inspection of the business’ health practices. Hygienic practices, food storage, and basic infrastructure conditions are all subject to review.
The most common violations inspectors find, said Cross, involve temperature controls and the dating of foods that are prone to bacterial growth. Violations of both conditions are critical.
“If you’re storing food for the public at a temperature that is not the required maximum temperature, 41 degrees, if it’s not that, then the shelf life shortens, and you run the risk of bacteria growth on a product. The date marking, the reason that is really important … is if you’re eating food that is expired, bacteria could have started. It might smell OK, so that’s the standard they have to go by.”
But, by and large, Cross commended the local food scene for its adherence to food safety regulations. Compared to how it used to be, Cross said conditions have improved dramatically, mostly driven by the fact that food retailers are now required to have at least one employee certified in food safety practices.
“It used to be so aggravating to stand there and fight this battle,” said Cross. “Everything has improved, and I think it’s due to the awareness, the popular demand for cleaner things according to what’s shown on the TV and media. And the certification program has helped us a lot.”
As an example Cross pointed to a steakhouse that opened in Kokomo a decade ago. Dubbed Sunrise Steakhouse, the restaurant was closed by the health department after only eight days after inspectors found many egregious food safety violations.
The Kokomo Perspective has compiled every food safety inspection report from the Howard County Health Department this year. To see how your favorite restaurant stacked up, check out the reports in this gallery below.