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At risk

Suffering food inspection program could be cut in coming years

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Food inspector Laura Dixon tests sauce temperature at - the San Jose Family Mexican Restaurant. Co-owner - Martin Arceo (left) and cook Martin Moreno look on. - 2007 JON KELLEY
  • 2007 Jon Kelley
  • Food inspector Laura Dixon tests sauce temperature at the San Jose Family Mexican Restaurant. Co-owner Martin Arceo (left) and cook Martin Moreno look on.

Laura Dixon leans over a skillet in the backroom kitchen of San Jose Family Mexican Restaurant, a new sit-down joint at 5865 Palmer Park Blvd. On this January morning, before the restaurant opens for business, the El Paso County food inspector thrusts a food thermometer into a small silver urn of shredded chicken and red sauce and pulls out a 135-degree reading. That's good, she explains; state law requires hot foods to be kept at that minimum temperature.

"Do you make this fresh every morning?" Dixon asks restaurant co-owner Martin Arceo, who manages two other Mexican eateries, in Colorado Springs and Idaho.

"Yeah," he replies. "I've been doing this since '89. That's a lot of years."

Dixon moves on to the raw meat freezer and then the square dishwasher, where she tests sanitizer levels to ensure that San Jose's plates don't come out smeared with an invisible but toxic coat of chlorine. The 50 parts per million reading clears the test, and Dixon reminds a small entourage of trailing restaurant workers about hand-washing as she walks toward the closet-sized freezer to examine a tub of ground beef.

Dixon is one of 10 food inspectors charged with scrutinizing El Paso County's 2,275 retail food establishments, which include sit-down eateries, hot dog stands and even 7-Elevens and candy-selling Blockbuster video stores.

Already understaffed, the food inspection program is at risk of being eliminated. A $1.1 million health department budget slash over the past two years has forced officials to downsize services. With another cut, food inspections might be the next to go.

'A direct negative effect'

In that case, scaled-down local responsibilities would be handed over to the state health department. Denver staffers would make the trip only to respond to complaints or emergency epidemics, a scheme that could leave thousands in El Paso County vulnerable to sickness.

"What you would find is, there would be more and more food-borne illness outbreaks connected to restaurants that were not doing the proper procedures," says local health department director Rosemary Bakes-Martin. "We normally hear of people getting sick and recovering. But some of these food-borne illnesses can be pretty devastating."

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Even with semi-regular restaurant inspections, the county weathered eight major food-borne illness outbreaks in 2006. Most of them involved Norovirus, a diarrhea-inducing bug that spreads from an infected person to food. More than 400 people became ill last year, nearly half of them in one outbreak at a local jail. Others became sick at a restaurant, a wedding, a family gathering, a school, a military event and several banquets and conferences.

"We now have data that shows that these cuts have had a direct negative effect on our ability to keep people safe from disease," says Bakes-Martin, who adds that the health department receives around $4.90 per person from the county, the lowest amount among 10 area counties.

Rather than petition the near-penniless county for increased funding, she hopes to include the health department in upcoming deliberations for a tax increase that will likely be put to voters next fall.

A solid report

Back at San Jose's kitchen, Dixon picks up giant cans of tomatoes to check for dents or bulges that signal deadly bacteria inside. She shines a flashlight under the drink machines to search for rodents, then sits down at a round table with the restaurant's other co-owner, 23-year-old Ricardo Fregoso.

The eatery receives a solid report, with just four now-corrected blips one rag bucket had too much chlorine, the chip container was left uncovered, and there were mugs of coffee and a jacket in the kitchen. San Jose's receives a "pass." A "fail" which might be prompted by a lack of hot water, a sewage backup or a roach infestation could lead the county to close a restaurant.

Fregoso pays $154 a year for his eatery's license. Since the state precludes the county from charging more, the inspection program takes in only half of the money it spends to conduct twice yearly investigations. This deficit, coupled with a steadily increasing number of restaurants to inspect, has caused the health department to fall woefully short of its mandated assessments. In 2006, the food inspection program skipped out on 1,199 about 30 percent of the FDA- and state-recommended examinations.

"It's hard to get every single restaurant twice," admits Dixon, who manages 244 eateries in the 80915 ZIP code.

But since San Jose is considered "high-risk," as all full-menu restaurants are, the food inspector will return unannounced in the coming months.

"You can expect to be inspected throughout the year," Dixon tells Fregoso, handing him a stack of papers that includes a "Vegetable Prep-Sink Only" sign to post in the kitchen.

"Bring it on," he says.

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