Six Strikes You're Out?
Published: Friday, October 26, 2012
Updated: Friday, October 26, 2012 02:10
An inspector from the D.C. Department of Health walks into a restaurant kitchen for the first time in a year. He sees a cook smoking, but the cigarette gets put out. He sees another worker with a contagious illness, but that person is told to leave for the day. The inspector identifies five other critical health violations that can’t be fixed during the inspection, but those are corrected by the time of his follow-up visit.
According to health code policy in this city, that hypothetical restaurant would pass its inspection and be allowed to remain open. The code mandates that eateries be shut down if they meet or exceed a total of six violations that cannot be corrected immediately. But considering the dangers associated with unsafe food preparation, such standards are alarmingly lax. Changes to the code must be made to guarantee that food being served in D.C. restaurants passes a strict test of sanitation.
Georgetown eateries have had plenty of experience with health code violations this fall. The Department of Health cited O’Donovan Hall with six critical violations during a Sept. 4 inspection, two of which were corrected during the visit and the rest of which were addressed in time for a follow-up inspection on Sept. 24. There were a total of 18 critical and non-critical violations found at food venues in Leavey Center on Oct. 3, and there has yet to be a second inspection.
Critical violations are defined as those that “if left uncorrected are more likely than other violations to directly contribute to food contamination, illness or environmental health hazards.” An establishment can be closed if it has six critical violations that cannot be rectified on the spot, but because inspections occur on an infrequent basis, “if left uncorrected” overlooks the fact that these health hazards could have already existed at a venue for many months.
It can take 45 days for a follow-up inspection for non-critical problems, such as grease buildup or non-functioning refrigerators. When hundreds of meals are served at a place like O’Donovan Hall every day, the Department of Health’s lack of urgency is unacceptable. Furthermore, by forgiving critical violations that are corrected during an inspection, the DOH sends a message that sanitation negligence is acceptable during the days when inspectors aren’t watching.
This process creates a culture of compliance rather than high standards. In what other area of law enforcement would such low expectations be tolerated — would a reckless driver be let off the hook after being pulled over if he promised to drive away under the speed limit? By failing to actually enforce standards, giving generous amounts of time to fix violations and permitting on-site corrections, the DOH falls short of fulfilling its mission to guarantee quality and safety.
The DOH must hold eateries to a higher standard and conduct inspections more frequently. It’s unlikely that inspectors would be willing to sit down for a meal at a restaurant where they’ve just identified nearly a half-dozen critical health violations, and consumers should not be expected to do so either.