County health department goes digital to improve inspections [Hamilton JournalNews, Ohio]
(Hamilton Journal News (OH) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Sept. 29--BUTLER COUNTY -- The Butler County Health Department is using new software to keep track of health code violations and additional techniques to keep restaurants and dining facilities apprised of the proper way to store and prepare food.
Brian Williamson, chief of environmental services for Butler County Health Department, said Ohio itself is in a transitional phase when it comes to health inspections of restaurants and food service facilities.
"Local health departments are more or less bringing in technology to help do computerized inspections or data tracking in the systems," he said. "With our system right now, the previous year, most of the year we had on paper inspections."
That meant no quick way to pull data and gauge whether violations were up or down in a given year, Williamson said. Instead, such raw data research could only be accomplished by sifting through hundred of files by hand.
The new computerized inspection system, which came as a result of updating existing health department software, started last November in an attempt to modernize. Laptop computers allow inspectors to show diagrams of health code dilemmas and their solutions, while a portable printer allows inspectors to print informative health care instructions remotely to share with food preparation staffers.
While the new system doesn't make inspections any quicker, there are a lot of advantages to the switch, including legibility, he said.
"Regardless of who inspects a facility, you're going to have a legible report (and allow for) things like checking for spelling errors to help with communications," he said. "Having the ability to add additional comments and rule reference also helps."
If a health inspector makes an observation, he or she can refer directly to the section of the code dealing with that requirement.
"It also gives us the advantage (that) if there's guidance sheets, or fact sheets, or things that we can print out as a visual aid to help with the communication," Williamson said. "Since we're carrying laptops with us, we can give that type of assistance while we're doing inspections, as well. So, if there's a problem with setting up a three compartment sink, we can give a visual aid that will help with how to do that."
While the health department hasn't noticed any major changes on how facilities are performing, it is starting to target problematic facilities, he said.
A critical health violation refers to anything "that could directly impact food safety," according Williamson. Examples include proper storage temperatures not being met, an employee not washing his or her hands before preparing food or mixing of raw and cooked foods.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that each year roughly 48 million people, or 1 in 6 Americans, get sick from some sort of food borne disease. Of those 48 million, 128,000 people are hospitalized and 3,000 people die due to food that was improperly stored or prepared. The CDC said there are 31 known pathogens that can grow in food that is not stored correctly that will infect unaware eaters.
The department also has been standardizing training for inspectors so there are no major differences between one inspector or another going to a facility.
"We're all trying to be very systematic and thorough and more or less assess how the facilities are complying with the overall food code," Williamson said.
As part of that standardization process, the health department is also training inspectors on special processes of the Ohio Uniform Food Safety Code and changing ways of asking questions during inspections to see if operators can demonstrate knowledge.
"You're really diving into the details of the food code, rather than just looking at floors, walls and ceilings," Williamson said. "A lot of the food inspection is asking for a demonstration of knowledge or explanation of how things are handled. If you see a product on the countertop, we're not just looking at that, we're looking for questions to be answered on what was done before it got to that point and where's it going afterward."
If an inspector encounters operators who can explain their processes and know the benchmarks on temperatures before, during and after the preparation process, they can get "a real good sense of how well they're doing," Williamson said.
"Even if the kitchen is absolutely spotless, if the food handler isn't knowledgeable, things can still happen to the food," he said. "If you're just looking, you're not getting the full feel for how well they're handling the food. Sometimes, in having those conversations, we can bump into issues that we can talk about, even though we didn't see it happen."
To improve their food storage, handling and preparation skills, facilities can attend the health departments level one food safety class at 9 a.m. on the third Tuesday of each month.
"The facilities that are showing up there are taking a special interest to train their people," Williamson said.
In Butler County alone, there are more than 2,000 places that provide food for sale in some capacity.
Both Hamilton and Middletown health departments said they do not keep digital records or statistics of critical or non-critical violations.
"We're not computerized, nor does we have the staff to enter each inspection to compile that information," said Carla Ealy, director of environmental health/health inspector for the city of Middletown, which includes a secretary, a health commissioner and Ealy.
"It's very difficult to have that information compiled, however, we do take a proactive approach in performing our inspections," she said. "We do hand out literature and offer food safety classes, so we would hope that, in those efforts, that that would minimize the amount of critical violations during any given time."
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