The kitchen assault on a tub of leafy greens was witnessed by customer John Flood, as he sat in the dining area of Monument's Rotelli, back in 2007. Flood says he watched in disgust as the to-go guy dug his unwashed, money-handling hands into the lettuce. Then another worker put the open bin on the floor.
Flood talked to the manager, then filed a complaint with the El Paso County Department of Health and Environment.
The health department's seen a lot of complaints recently. In 2007, the health department investigated 369 restaurant-associated reports of illness or critical violations. In 2006, the department had to launch just 178 of these investigations, and in 2005, only 60.
A search of public records reveals a colorful variety of reports from consumers. Take this one filed about a Pizza Hut: "pepperoni thin crust pizza pubic hair stuck to piece of pepperoni (tight, coarse, curly, light brown)." The health department investigated that one; the resulting report confirmed that all kitchen staff were wearing proper hair nets, and found nothing else requiring follow-up.
Indeed, some complaints are easily resolved. The manager at Rotelli, for instance, told the health department that the salad incident was a mistake. The health department went over bare-hand contact procedure with staff. Case closed.
Flood says he's felt comfortable enough to return to the restaurant. He notes that usually, problems are just issues of proper training.
"You're taking a risk wherever you go out to eat," he says.
And other restaurants, indeed, have had bigger problems. In 2007, a customer reported a cockroach on the soda machine at Mama Trino's Pizzeria, at 1817 S. Nevada Ave. The health department investigated and reported:
"Baby cockaroaches [sic] were found throughout the floor under the cooler. the [sic] cooler was then pulled out and I witness [sic] 3 big cockaroaches [sic]."
According to the department, the issue has since been resolved, with help from pest control and a thorough cleaning.
If all this turns your stomach, consider this: The health department expects the situation to get worse.
A letter published in the EPCMSnewsletter, from Randall Bjork, president of the El Paso County Medical Society, says, "Because of recent public funding decisions hereabouts, our county health department will be facing de facto budgetary extinction by the end of this decade."
Health department funding has decreased from $5.1 million in 2001 to $3.8 million in 2007, even as the number of restaurants has jumped from 1,970 in 2000 to more than 2,600 today.
The health department has the equivalent of just eight restaurant inspectors. They routinely inspect restaurants once when they open, but less than once a year after that. The FDA thinks the department ought to have the equivalent of 14 to 16 inspectors, and the state mandates that it inspect restaurants at least twice a year though it's thus far allowed El Paso County to slide.
But the county likely won't be hiring any new inspectors soon, unless it finds more money. Some have floated the idea of a voter-approved tax increase that could fund critical services like the health and sheriff's departments.
In the meantime, you might want to peek into the diner's kitchen before chomping down on that sandwich. Uncooked foods pose a higher risk, says health department environmental health director Rick Miklich. That's because food workers don't always follow the health department's No. 1 rule: Wash your hands.
A lot of times, Miklich says, the health department hears about problems that aren't likely to make you ill, though the vast majority are investigated anyway: a bit of dried crud on your plate, bugs, a misplaced hair.
"The public doesn't understand public health and what can make them sick," he says.
Unfortunately, sometimes restaurant workers don't understand, either, which is why Miklich says 90 percent of an inspector's job is education. Most restaurant owners are quite receptive.
"They don't do business if people are getting sick from their food," notes Dr. Bernadette Albanese, the department's medical director.
Albanese investigates all kinds of illnesses that can affect public health, including common food-borne illnesses like E. coli, which can precipitate symptoms from vomiting to, in extreme cases, kidney failure.
Most people, she says, don't report "food poisoning" to the health department. In fact, the Center for Disease Control estimates that for every one case of salmonella reported, 38 go undiagnosed.
Even reported cases are hard to track. Albanese says she looks for links, but not everything can be investigated, a point proving even more true as the caseload increases.
Is she worried about the future?
Albanese glares mischievously over the rim of her glasses.
She asks: "Are you worried about it?"
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