Dutchess Sanitarians Ensure Citizens Eat Healthy and Happy

With Restaurant Week in full swing throughout the Hudson Valley, the enforcing officials of the Dutchess County Department of Behavioral & Community Health have been spread throughout the area on different assignments to ensure the protection of the hungry citizens in the area.

It is an unspoken social implication that when you leave the friendly confines of your own kitchen and go out to eat, you are placing trust and confidence in the restaurant that you choose. The social contract in place states that if you choose to eat at an establishment, you should be allowed to feel comfortable and safe for your bodily well-being in that environment.

The expectation that a restaurant will uphold this agreement is something that we can take for granted because of the hard work of thousands of health inspectors across the country.

“The sanitarian staff works hard to ensure that the food offered at our food service establishments is as safe as possible,” said Tanya Clark, Director of Environmental Health Services. “The safeguards that are established and maintained by our department help protect the public from food-borne illness.”

According to Mrs. Clark, the department employs 12 health inspectors, or sanitarians, to cover approximately 1,300 food service operations that the government labels as existing, established businesses. In addition, the department also has to cover approximately 750 food service businesses that are classified as temporary standings.

With such a great amount of institutions to cover in a fixed, yet, strict amount of time, the inspectors are spread thin on multiple assignments. Like a group of officials working in the shadows, the inspectors have little time for burdens outside of their direct jurisdiction. Mrs. Clark, however, serves as a necessary and helpful bridge in relaying the detailed responsibilities that the workers experience.

The actual inspection process of food operations is a long one, since the health security of thousands of people requires a detailed, step-by-step procedure. To start, a determination is made whether the inspection is unquestioningly necessary. Necessity is based on factors such as time elapsed since the last inspection, overall inspection history, or a specific complaint made by an outside source. Depending on the circumstances, a recent history review may be completed to confirm the necessity of the inspection.

Following this preparation, a date and time is set between the food service institution and the department for the test to begin. During the inspection, a wide variety of topics are explored, including food sources, handling, storage, preparation, cooking, cooling, and reheating. There is plenty of paperwork to be filed and guidelines to be followed, but ultimately a lot of the responsibilities are based on the inspector’s prior knowledge and experience to conduct the thoroughest investigation possible. “Inspections show a snapshot of the operation, but the inspector uses science, interpretation, communication, logic, and experience to determine the food’s safety,” Clark said.

If any major or minor issues arise, the inspector will bring these grievances to the owners of the establishment. With the authority that the position carries, it would be easy for the experienced sanitation officers to act as a damning judge, jury, and executioner for violations. More often then not, however, violations result in informal discussions, approved reviews by supervisors, and basic re-inspection protocol.

“We work with the operator to achieve voluntary compliance through education and procedural changes at the facility,” Clark said. “Most violations are corrected in this manner.”

Clark believes that this collaborative process is crucial for not only communication, but also education to prevent future penalties. In a finicky technicality, which may seem hard to believe, the health code does not require those who are making the food to become intimately familiar with the rules that the sanitarians are enforcing. Therefore, establishing good relationships with the potentially naïve operators is important in working towards solutions that work for both sides.

If the violations do persist, more formally strict action is enforced. The owner of the establishment in question is required to attend an informal hearing, followed by a formal one if deemed necessary. For each violation, the maximum penalty in New York State under the Sanitary Code is $2,000. In the most severe and rare cases (permanent power or water loss, sewage backup, etc.), the establishment is subject to shut down.

Many movie and television shows situate health inspectors in an antagonizing role, like an unpredictable barrier that our heroes have to overcome. Clark’s comments on the day-to-day life of the job, however, tell a much different and comforting story for worried restaurant owners and patrons. “Food service operations generally operate on a predictable schedule and food volume,” she said.

Despite this typical certainty in the workplace, there are still quite a few unexpected challenges that can make the job much more difficult for the inspectors. Random factors, such as illness breakouts, language barriers, and staff turnover, in previously educated restaurants can possibly jeopardize the entire safety process. While it’s difficult to pinpoint when these uncertainties can occur, Clark said that the inspectors are particularly on alert during holidays and special events like Restaurant Week.

“Holidays or special events may entice the operator to prepare a food item not usually on the menu or increase the quantity of food prepared,” Clark said. “This may overburden the ability of the restaurant’s infrastructure to safely prepare a food item, possibly resulting in food-borne illness. Historically, the department has investigated several food-borne outbreaks that were the result of the preparation of a large amount of food or an unfamiliar menu item.”

Serving as a barrier for the public against sickness and even more severe ailments, the work of a health inspector falls under the category of public service. They provide information to the unaware and protect them from the dangers of consumption uncertainty. It may be a position that few people think about when they go out to eat, but this kind of unconscious thinking is what the inspectors seem to want. The department wants to keep us safe, but not compromise the enjoyment of our meals as well.

“The job of a health inspector is never boring, as there are constant changes in the work environment,” Clark said. “They have the knowledge that their work is creating a safer food product and reducing the incidence of food-borne illness.”

All inspections are filed under public record in New York State databases. For information about the latest inspection for a specific facility, visit: http://pokjournal.nydatabases.com/database/nys-restaurant-inspections.

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