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Health chief suggests ratings for restaurants

Norwalk Reflector Staff • Oct 29, 2015 at 12:15 PM

After a recent outbreak of salmonella poisoning at a local restaurant, the Huron County health department director has suggested a county-wide rating system for all restaurants to give “grades” posted at the entrances.

Tim Hollinger said some cities and other states have found success with a rating program based on inspections. He said his department now inspects nearly 500 food service facilities across the county.

“Most of the public is in the dark about the quality of the restaurant they’re eating at,” he said. “(With a rating system), it’s posted right on the front door — when they were inspected and how they were rated.”

Ratings would be based on the number and the severity of the violations, Hollinger said.

“If you are a restaurant that scores low, either you’re going to have a real downgrade in the number of patrons and you’re going to clean it up or you’re going to go out of business,” Hollinger said. “We think this might be a good time to introduce it. We’ll be watching to see what the public thinks.”

Hollinger’s final report of the recent outbreak of salmonella muenchen at Casa Fiesta is complete and he said there is no way to trace the original source of the outbreak.

“There is no smoking gun,” he said, but 29 of the 36 patrons who agreed to testing and five employees all tested positive for the same strain of salmonella. Testing has not been completed for the other seven patrons. All employees were tested and 18 showed no signs of infection.

Hollinger said the outbreak couldn’t be traced to any one type of food. He said there are 14 other restaurants in the Casa Fiesta chain and none of the other businesses had any problems.

He also worked with the health department in New Mexico because of a salmonella outbreak there, but there was no connection between the Norwalk cases and the New Mexico cases.

Since the source of the outbreak can’t be definitely traced, Hollinger said, all that is left are assumptions as to the cause.

“Food can be contaminated in grocery stores,” he said, adding that contamination can spread in the field, in transit, by grocery store patrons or by delivery personnel.

“Our hands and fingers are the worst cross-contaminators,” he said. “Think about how many people have touched the apples, lemons and tomatoes before you buy them.” He said thorough washing will remove any contamination, but patrons should never buy fruits or vegetables with broken skin because bacteria could have entered the pulp.

Cross-contamination also occurs, Hollinger explained, when someone working with raw meat infected with salmonella then moves on to touch another type of food without washing hands or changing gloves. The salmonella is killed when food is heated to 165 degrees for only five seconds so the contamination in the meat would be destroyed by cooking, but it could remain on fresh fruit or vegetables.

Hollinger said another common source for salmonella was the outside of egg shells. He recommended putting all eggs in boiling water for only five seconds. That won’t cook the eggs, he said, but it will kill any contamination.

He also explained some of the regulations the health department checks for when inspecting restaurants. Fruits and vegetables can never be stored below meats, he said, because meats can drip down and contaminate the other food.

Hollinger said salmonella is found in almost all kitchens at some point, but proper food handling, cooking and cleaning will consistently kill the bacteria.

Hollinger said he had gotten “excellent” cooperation from Casa Fiesta.

“They’ve cooperated in every way we’ve asked them to,” he said. “The public is safe at this point. They’ve cleaned the restaurant and I’m sure they’re vigilant at the moment.”

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