Health code violations may not be as uncommon as you might think. Next time you choose a place to dine, you might want to check on the recent reports by inspectors in the Kalamazoo County’s Food Safety Program, a division of Environmental Health in the Health and Community Services Department.
The reports, listed on the Restaurant Inspections Online database on the department website, show that some of the most popular restaurants have cringe-worthy violations. For some takeout Chinese restaurants, these violations include black fungus in the freezers and cockroaches in the kitchens.
Popular Chinese Restaurant has Several Food Safety Issues
Campus Wok, formerly Campus Kitchen, is the second most popular Chinese takeout restaurant in Kalamazoo, according to Urban Spoon, a website on which consumers can rate restaurants. The restaurant is located near Western Michigan University’s campus.
The most recent health inspection at Campus Wok was in January 2013. It was found then that one of the cooks was smoking cigarettes in the restaurant. Campus Wok has had a past pest problem with flies, gnats, and cockroaches, according to a 2011 inspection report. The problem has been controlled since then. It has an average of nearly eight violations for every inspection.
There has been “slime mold” on ice trays in 2009, fly strips above pots of rice and another instance of a smoking cook in 2011.
To put this in perspective, the most popular Chinese restaurant in Kalamazoo, according to Urban Spoon—Hunan Gardens on West Main—has had no violations in the past four inspections.
How the Kalamazoo County Health Department Works
The Kalamazoo County Health Department inspects each restaurant two to four times a year, unannounced. Inspectors will correct as many issues as possible before leaving the restaurant, and make plans to address long term food safety issues in follow up inspections.
Violations of the Michigan Modified Food Code are either considered core, or minor, and priority. Typically a violation is “priority” because something is occurring that could cause food borne illness to contaminate food. The core violations are usually just minor maintenance or sanitation violations that would not immediately endanger a customer’s health.
Vern Johnson, the environmental health specialist for Kalamazoo County, explains that Kalamazoo “Chinese restaurants, for the most part, are in very good shape.” However, food safety issues still occur as seen in the inspection report.
The continuing violations at certain restaurants could be a result of a language barrier, or because in “the culture that they came from they think they’re doing everything right.” Johnson sympathizes with these restaurant owners who have trouble understanding the intricacies of the 219-page Michigan Modified Food Code saying that “our codes are pretty stringent.”
Johnson explains that the Michigan Food Code is put in place for the safety and health of consumers. It is based on important scientific principles set in place by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC), according to Johnson.
Prevention of food-borne illness is a major concern of the health department. Such illnesses can be easily prevented by taking the proper measures to keep food preparation and storage areas clean, and by ensuring people handling food are not sick and have clean hands.
Cockroaches in Restaurants on the Incline
The service manager at a pest control service in Kalamazoo who did not want his name used due to corporate public relations policies, says that the pest problem in restaurants is not limited to Chinese takeout places. He says the pest control business has been increasing in the past year for restaurants, particularly with cockroaches.
Along with Campus Wok, Rice Kitchen has had a cockroach infestation. The restaurant completely controlled the pests in Dec. 2012, according to the inspection report.
The pest infestation increase is partially because of the “big turnover in restaurants that pay lower wages,” according to the pest control service manager. These independent restaurants often overlook the necessary thorough and regular cleaning of grease and food that can attract the pests.
Corporations typically have strict policies in place to keep up with cleaning. Restaurants that are not chains–including, but not limited to Chinese restaurants–sometimes have fewer measures in place regarding following the Michigan Food Code, according to the pest control company manager.
At the Great Wall of China, employees attempted to try their own form of pest control with a Chinese pesticide. According to the report from the Oct. 2013 inspection, “nowhere on the label does it state that this product is safe to use in a food service establishment.” The inspector oversaw that the person in charge disposed of the mysterious pesticide.
Restaurants have Difficulties with Prevention of Salmonella
The prevention of food-borne illnesses, such as salmonella, is the main purpose of the food safety code.
Buddha’s Belly, a Chinese restaurant on West Michigan near WMU’s campus, was found mixing frozen and thawing chicken with shrimp in January 2013.
Raw meat and animal products such as eggs are known to sometimes be contaminated with salmonella. If this contaminated food touches other foods, or a contaminated food handler with unwashed hands touches ready-to-eat food, the bacteria can spread.
Symptoms of salmonella include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever. Outbreaks of salmonella nationally have increased from five outbreaks in 2011 to eight total outbreaks in 2012, according to the Center for Disease Control.
Buddha’s Belly has had issues in the past with employees not washing their hands according to health inspection reports. One multi-tasking employee was observed talking on the phone while making sushi. The food safety code requires washing hands before and after handling food, a policy about which the chef was shortly after informed.
Cultural Reasons for Food Safety Violations
Thalea Stokes, an alumna of WMU, studied abroad and traveled to China several times. She has a Master of the Arts in Music (with a focus area of Mongolian Music in China). Stokes mentions that in China, if there were cleanliness issues that would be a violation of the food safety code in America, “it is unlikely that the restaurant itself will receive any major repercussions unless it were something serious that could potentially embarrass the local government.”
Though it may seem strange to a Michigander to see a smoking cook at Campus Wok, it could be attributed to cultural differences. Michigan has had a strict smoking ban in restaurants since 2010, while Stokes explains that “there is no such thing as a ‘non-smoking section’ in China.”
Stokes’ favorite Chinese restaurant in Kalamazoo “was and still is Hunan Gardens,” which has had no major violations since 2009.