Food Fears

March 29, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
The quality of food served in local restaurants is the responsibility of a small group of people. -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Access food inspection reports:
Fresno County: www.co.fresno.ca.us
Merced County: merced.networkofcare.org
Tulare County: www.visaliatimesdelta.com
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Even in this tough economy, people are still eating out at restaurants. Though some are choosing less expensive options, high quality is still something all diners expect. "It's kinda hard nowadays. A lot of restaurants don't clean their stuff as well as other places would," said one restaurant customer.

That quality assurance falls in the hands of Amy Dobrinin. She's a food inspector with the Fresno County Department of Community Health. For nearly 25 years, she's inspected restaurants from the inside out.

Average inspections last about an hour, which can seem like an eternity for restaurant owners like Samuel Garcia, who runs the Guadalajara chain of restaurants in Fresno. "As soon as they walk in, sometimes they catch you when it's busy or so and it's nerve-wracking. You start like, what's wrong this time, is it going to go right, is everything okay or up to code?"

There are nearly 4,800 food service providers in Fresno County and only 22 inspectors. Most restaurants are inspected about four times a year. That's 872 visits per year, per inspector. And that doesn't include public pools, school pools and water wells. Food inspectors are responsible for those too.

"Sometimes things do fall through the cracks, but we do do everything that we possibly can to cover that," said Stephanie Kahl.

Stephanie Kahl supervises Fresno County food inspectors. She says, like most county run agencies, the Department of Community Health has taken a hit because of the economy. She says, "We've lost positions. We've had many positions that have been vacant for quite some time so we haven't seen the bodies go, but yet the staff are going to have to do more with less."

After every visit, inspectors report their findings for you to see. All inspection reports are posted online. Some reveal disturbing trends including mishandling food, illnesses, and even cockroach infestation.

It's a valuable resource that many people don't even know about.

Action New asked several people: "Were you aware that you have access to food inspection reports?"

"You know, I really wasn't but now that you tell me, please write the website down for me."

"Actually, no. That's the first I've heard of it."

"No actually, I didn't"

The Public's Inquiry is important, and so is their input. Of the 14,000 inspections conducted last year, 1,100 were complaint driven, including food poisoning. "We definitely need the help of the public because we're not there 24/7. So, the public is our eyes and ears when we're not there and they let us know."

Whether they're tipped off or discover an issue during a routine visit, Kahl says her department always has a plan in place, followed by consequences.

That plan was tested two years ago when 27 people got sick after eating e-coli contaminated meat from The Meat Market in Fresno. Fresno County's Department of Community Health was able to track down the source, which led to more frequent inspections at The Meat Market and a nationwide check to make sure the contaminated meat wasn't sent anywhere else.

"There's many, many things that we do that the public isn't aware of, but yet we're a part of their lives everyday."

Protecting the food we eat, and ultimately, our health.

The restaurant we showed you in that report received minor violations, most of which were taken care of the day of the food inspection.

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