City restaurant inspectors make reservations

Minneapolis has begun notifying restaurants before doing inspections -- and city staff predicts the "counterintuitive" approach will improve food safety

Under the city of Minneapolis’ new restaurant inspection program, inspectors are scheduling appointments with restaurant managers rather than surprising them.

In the past, health inspectors showed up at restaurants without warning, filled out a checklist and often left without talking to anyone in charge. Three or four months later, an inspector stopped again to see if the problems had been addressed.

The new program, which has been under development for the last six months, is designed to be more of a partnership between a restaurant manager and an inspector. An inspector spends close to two hours discussing high risk factors at the particular site -- usually by going through menu items. For example, an inspector can point to a shellfish or chicken dish and ask about food preparation areas, sanitization techniques and temperatures for cooling and heating the meat.

“This approach allows us to focus on the risk factors -- the things that actually make people sick,” said inspector Kris Keller. “It allows the operators to ask questions, and operators open up more. You get a lot of valuable information by sitting down and talking to an operator.”

There is a place for unannounced visits, said Curt Fernandez, manager of the city’s environmental health department. Six months after the scheduled visit, an inspector will show up unexpectedly to review items from the first meeting.

By switching the emphasis of the first visit from enforcement to partnership, the city hopes to solve food safety issues rather than keep them hidden, Fernandez said.

Plan has worked elsewhere

Since southern Minnesota's Olmstead County began announcing restaurant inspections in 1998, health inspectors have seen big improvements.

“It’s kind of counterintuitive to the general public,” said Pete Giesen, environmental health manager for Olmstead County. “But the reality is that we have a common goal of food safety. Many of the things we had traditionally looked at -- like a hole in the wall or an improper ceiling finish -- were code violations that were unlikely to cause illness. Because we wanted to get to the common thread of food safety, we needed to find out what really goes on there. If you don’t start out with a good assessment of risks, you are doing the public a disservice.”

Giesen sites one example where a manager told the inspector that he didn’t know how to manage the raw chicken in the food preparation area. The manager was aware that there was a problem in the handling and cleaning of the chicken, but he wasn’t sure how to fix it.

“We didn’t even know it was a problem,” Giesen said. “In the past, there was no incentive to tell us about it -- the attitude was, ‘Don’t tell the health department anything because it will get us in trouble.’ Looking back at our past inspections -- we could have easily not been there at the time when they were preparing chicken. We would have missed it. Now, workers feel comfortable telling what is going on.”

Inspectors helped the manager work out a system that was easy to implement and easy for workers to follow. It included using red cutting knives and red cutting boards for raw chicken and preparing the chicken in one area before moving to another.

Only the risky get notice

The new program applies only to Risk 1 restaurants, which are those restaurants that have the highest food-safety risk. By comparison, Subway is a Risk 2 establishment. Minneapolis has 750 Risk 1 restaurants.

The city of Minneapolis also plans to fully evaluate the program by holding meetings where the public can comment; creating a food advisory council to offer new food safety initiatives; and requesting restaurant operators' feedback about the new program. And in an effort to ensure that restaurants are credited for using the safest food safety practices, the city plans to host annual award and recognition ceremonies for exemplary establishments.

The state of Minnesota approves of Minneapolis’ new approach, especially in light of the success in Olmstead County, which includes Rochester and the Mayo Clinic.

“It helps [restaurants] to have safer food,” said Colleen Paulus, state environmental health manager. “They too want to serve safe food -- they are not in the business of making people sick. Health inspectors have a lot of information for preventing food borne illnesses, and with this method we can provide more information to operators. Instead of working in opposition, we are working together and everyone benefits.”