5 On Your Side

Disgusting or dangerous? NC inspector dishes on dirty dining discoveries

Posted July 9, 2015 6:15 p.m. EDT
Updated July 9, 2015 6:47 p.m. EDT

— Customers aren’t usually invited into restaurants’ kitchens to see where the food is prepared and dishes are cleaned. Instead, they rely on posted sanitation grades to determine if a restaurant is clean.

To find out what goes into grades and how violations are tallied, 5 On Your Side visited a local eatery with a Wake County health inspector to see how he typically rates restaurants.

With decades in the industry in multiple states, environmental health specialist James Smith says he has just about seen it all.

“(A restaurant) had a bucket of fish there and nice, pretty fish. I asked them where they got it, and they said they caught it in the retaining pond out back,” Smith recalled.

He also found roaches during an inspection.

“You could walk in to do an inspection and kick the flour bin and all the roaches would kind of come up to the top of the flour, and their little antenna would peek out. Of course, they’re completely white with flour,” he said.

Those problems were not in North Carolina restaurants, but the potential for issues like that is why the state requires restaurants be inspected without warning at least once a year.

"We probably don't get to places as often as we would prefer, but we get to them as often as we can, and we certainly prioritize the places we know can use the extra help,” Smith said.

Inspection forms, which many counties post online, note 34 separate items. Violations have a point value based on how likely they are to make someone sick.

“So something like dirty food contacting surfaces or employees not handling food correctly is worth a lot of points. Something like dirty floors is worth very few points,” Smith said.

Food temperatures are critical. Cold foods should be 41 degrees or below, and hot foods 135 or above.

“As long as they're keeping the foods in those temperature ranges, it's going to slow down the growth of bacteria, and hopefully the bacteria will never grow to the point that it could make somebody sick,” Smith said.

Viewers shared some of their dirty dining concerns with 5 On Your Side.

“Definitely hair and bugs,” said Yajaira Fernandez. Rachel Vachon says she watches out for “dirty or dingy” restaurants. Brian Jefferies is wary of crowded places. If a restaurant is busy, he says he worries that the cooking crew “might be a little slack in regards to sanitation and stuff.”

As an inspector, Smith can take concerns like those and determine if they are really dangerous or just disgusting. For instance, having roaches and other pests “does not necessarily mean that somebody is going to get sick,” he said. Also, lipstick on a glass is gross but probably won't make anyone sick.

Dirty equipment and utensils, however, are a health issue.

“Food that’s left on utensils, there is a possibility that there’s still some bacteria growth in it,” he said. “If there's bacteria on the meat slicer and it contaminates that meat, that meat is going directly to a customer who is going to eat it."

When asked about putting dates on food to know when it was prepared, Smith says discrepancies could be dangerous.

“Restaurants need to make sure they don't hold the food in the refrigerator long enough for bacteria like listeria to grow to the point that they could make people sick," he said.

In order to be shut down, a restaurant must score below a 70 or have a specific critical violation, such as leaking raw sewage or no water.

Inspectors try to visit at different times. The busier times give them a chance to see how things operate in a crunch, while slower times give them an opportunity to offer more education.

“Our ultimate goal is to get compliance from the restaurant,” Smith said.