by Sergio Bichao | MyCentralJersey.com
It had been weeks, perhaps months, since a mop last passed the kitchen floor at Abhiruchi Indian Cuisine in Iselin. But that didn’t stop employees from storing pots and utensils on the greasy food-encrusted ground.
Luso BBQ in Colonia for a while last year didn’t have working sinks for employees to wash their hands.
And then there was the worker at San Remo Restaurant in Hopelawn whom an inspector last year caught smoking a cigarette and picking his nose before handling food.
These are just some of the findings detailed in the hundreds of 2010 and 2011 inspection reports obtained by the Home News Tribune from health departments in Middlesex and Somerset counties.
Most inspection reports go unread by the public. While the documents are public records, and the basic rating certificate is supposed to be visibly posted in a restaurant, most agencies don’t post the ratings on the Internet and the certificates that eateries are required to hang on their walls don’t explain the reasons for a poor rating.
Health agencies say cost is one reason why they aren’t uploading their inspection reports to the Web. Another is a reluctance by some local officials and business owners to make embarrassing information so widely available.
“Some (governing bodies) don’t like the idea,” said David DeRosa, the senior registered environmental health specialist for Somerset County. “Some of the fear is: Is it going to be bad for business for the smaller towns and the mom-and-pop store that gets a bad rating out there?”
But Mulberrry Street Restaurant owner Paul LaGrutta, whose state-of-the-art kitchen in Woodbridge is equipped with food and refrigerator thermometers and hot-water dishwashers, said the added scrutiny would discourage cutting corners.
“I would think it would encourage compliance,” he said. “The way I run my kitchen, the concept of putting it on the Internet — what the hell, why shouldn’t it be a public record?”
Every year municipal, county and regional health departments conduct thousands of surprise inspections of restaurants, delis, supermarkets, seasonal carnivals, schools, lunch trucks and any business preparing, serving, or selling food.
The goal is to prevent food-borne illnesses such as salmonella and E.coli, which sicken one in six Americans with diarrhea, fever and stomach pains and kill thousands every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Inspectors are guided by the state’s sanitation code, last updated in 2007, and a 52-item checklist. Among the requirements:
Workers must wash hands for at least 20 seconds, “with at least 10 seconds of vigorous lathering.”
Refrigerated food must be kept below 41 to 45 degrees.
Pork and beef roasts have to be cooked at least 112 minutes at 130 degrees.
Hot food-holding trays must be kept at 135 degrees.
The 52-page code has rules requiring handles on scoops, describing how wiping cloths should be used or reused, and ordering signs to be posted in restrooms reminding employees to wash their hands.
Since 2010, the law requires at least one food worker on duty to take a food-handling safety course. Some towns, such as South Brunswick and Woodbridge, require all food handlers to receive training.
Most restaurants comply with the regulations and receive a “satisfactory” rating. Restaurants that fall short on a few requirements get a “conditional satisfactory.” A follow-up inspection results in a “satisfactory” finding if the restaurant fixes its problems.
If inspectors find serious violations that could pose a health risk — such as a sewage backup, no hot, running water, an active infestation, and no way for an eatery to maintain food temperature — the restaurant is rated “unsatisfactory” and asked to close until the problems are fixed.
“Unsatisfactory” ratings are rare, as is the need for officials to seek a court order to shut down a restaurant, local health officials said. In Middlesex County last year, less than 1 percent of inspections turned up “unsatisfactory” ratings. More than 15 percent of inspections resulted in “conditional satisfactory” ratings, a review of local health department findings show.
Finding the ratings
The Home News Tribune submitted requests under the state Open Public Records Acts to all health agencies conducting inspections in Middlesex and Somerset counties seeking electronic copies of all “unsatisfactory” and “conditional satisfactory” rating reports from January 2010 to April 2011.
The Woodbridge health department was the only health agency in Middlesex County that could email the documents. The Somerset County Health Department, whose seven inspectors last year visited 1,278 establishments in Somerville, Franklin, Manville, North Plainfield, Raritan, Far Hills and Bedminster, also was able to email PDF copies of the reports.
Other agencies were able to email a list of restaurants and ratings. The health departments in Bernards — which also covers Bernardsville, Chester, Long Hill, Mendham Township, Mendham Borough, and Peapack and Gladstone — and Hunterdon County list their ratings on their websites. The lists, however, do not explain why establishments failed inspections.
Someone looking to read that information would have to visit the agency’s office or pay hourly rates and photocopying fees for agency employees to sort and copy hundreds of handwritten documents.
Michael A. Meddis, public health coordinator for Monmouth County, one of the health agencies in the state that posts restaurant ratings online, said the website is “a valuable tool” for consumers.
“We try to be as transparent as possible and share on the website information people can use,” he said. “It gives people an opportunity to choose.”
South Brunswick health director Steve Papenberg said health officials there are discussing posting the information online, but the department has been stymied by recent budget cuts.
“One of the things we try to stress is that the food inspection report itself is public information. When you go to a restaurant and ask for a copy and they do not provide that for you, they are in violation,” Papenberg said.