Federal, local sanitation rules aim to ensure safe restaurant meals

Everyone has heard the restaurant horror stories: The chef dropping a steak on the floor but continuing to cook it anyway, the waiter spitting into food he is about to serve, and employees not washing their hands after a trip to the restroom.

But are these stories true?

Keeping a restaurant clean can be harder than it seems, chef and restaurant owner Joe Gracie said. Even though a specific city, state or country may have strict laws about sanitation, it is virtually impossible to cover all mishaps that can occur in a kitchen.

“There is no one single way to make sure a restaurant complies with all sanitation requirements,” Gracie said.

Gracie, who owned restaurants in Australia, said bugs are one of the most common issues.

“Being that Sydney is located on the coast and is in a subtropical climate zone, it has lots of flies, mosquitoes and the hardest pest to control: cockroaches.”

Gracie also shared one of his restaurant horror stories. It was not in one of his own restaurants but in another where he witnessed the chef enjoying his own work a little too soon.

“I saw the chef taste a product by dipping his hand in it — put his paw in his mouth much like a bear at a honey pot, then go back to mixing the product he had tasted with the same hand, all without washing it in between.”

A local restaurant that had problems in 2013 was Firefly Tapas Kitchen and Bar. The Southern Nevada Health District received reports from customers claiming to have suffered from gastrointestinal illnesses after eating at the restaurant’s Paradise Road location. An investigation showed that one item, cooked chorizo, tested positive for salmonella. The outbreak affected about 200 people.

At the time of the outbreak, an inspection showed 44 demerits, including inadequate holding of food; inadequate cooling; improper hand washing; employee bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat food; improper food storage practices; improper cleaning practices; and improper thawing of food.

Since the incident, Firefly has worked to improve.

“We have stepped up our food safety training and practices in order to absolutely serve the safest, freshest, best product that we can,” chef and managing partner John Simmons said.

(Simmons recently closed the Henderson location of Firefly after receiving 38 demerits in an inspection March 31. The restaurant was upgraded to an A, but Simmons said in a statement that the company wanted to focus on its other locations.)

“The scariest thing about the Firefly incident,” said Francie McCall, a junior at The Meadows School, “is that it can happen anywhere, not only in fast-food restaurants.”

Restaurants must follow strict standards to operate. The Food and Drug Administration publishes food codes restaurants nationwide must follow for sanitation. Locally, the Southern Nevada Health District has its own laws food establishments must follow.

If a restaurant has repeatedly received a “C” grade or below for its inspection and has had closures throughout the year, the health district would provide it with a mandatory supervisory conference. If these conferences, along with the owner or operator doing what he or she can to better the practices of the business, do not yield a positive change, the restaurant’s permit may be suspended.

The most significant inspection issues include personal hygiene-hand washing; cooking foods to appropriate temperatures and keeping foods at appropriate temperatures; ensuring food comes from approved and safe sources; and cross-contamination issues, said Stephanie Bethel, the health district’s public information officer.

Customers can’t know fully what’s happening behind a restaurant kitchen’s closed doors. There is, however, one easy and basic way to ensure your safety when eating in your community, Bethel said.

“When you visit a commercial food establishment — a restaurant, the deli at the grocery store, a bar, a food truck — you should be able to see the most recent inspection grade card.”

Yet, even with this feature, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year in America, about one in six people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases. Amid the buzz and bustle surrounding our city’s 4,000-plus restaurants, it seems likely that some food sanitation breaches may go unnoticed.