Interview: Angelo Bellomo, Director of Environmental Health for L.A. County Department of Public Health, Illuminates the Restaurant Inspection Process

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Public Health Los Angeles

Photo courtesy of Los Angeles County Department of Public Health

Angelo Bellomo has seen a lot during nearly three decades in government. The Director of Environmental Health for L.A. County Department of Public Health started as a field inspector 38 years ago and after nine years, went to work for Governor Jerry Brown in Sacramento in Hazardous Waste Management. He worked in the private sector and returned to the L.A. County Department of Public Health three years ago. After seeing thousands of letter grades on restaurant windows and now that I receive the department’s Food Facility Closure Report, it’s become important to learn more. To shed some light on the restaurant inspection process, I spoke with Angelo Bellomo on July 5, where he provided illumination. Leading up to the interview, a couple people even weighed in on the Food GPS Facebook page, and their contributions are noted below.

Josh Lurie: What are the most common mistakes that restaurants make when it comes to health code violations, and how easy are those violations to prevent?

Angelo Bellomo: The most significant, if there was an intersection between common and significant, that intersection would be on something like food temperatures, keeping cold food cold enough and hot foods hot enough. That alone goes a long way toward making sure that contaminants that are either introduced during handling and preparation of food in the restaurant, or may have been included in the food during harvesting or introduced during shipment or sale to the facilities. What we want to do is keep conditions cold enough or hot enough so bacteria die and don’t multiply and produce chemical toxins or when consumed, cause disease in a consumer.

The other common serious mistake would be that of contamination during preparation, assuming foods are relatively clean when they’re brought to the facility. Maybe they’re stored on unclean surfaces, or introducing chemicals that might be part of cleaning the operation, or other contaminants. If a worker is ill, they can transfer contaminants, either after they visit the bathroom or as a result of touching an unclean surface. So when we talk about keeping a restaurant clean, for example, we certainly don’t want contaminants in the restroom to spill out into the kitchen…If the surfaces in the restroom are not cleaned and sanitized, you have the potential of people coming out of the restroom and carrying fecal matter into the kitchen. We have to make sure three’s a proper supply of soap, warm water and towels or another mechanism for drying the hands.

JL: What are the most common misconceptions that diners have about restaurants that are forced to close temporarily after failing to pass a health inspection?

AB: Probably one of the most common misconceptions that people have is they generally don’t understand that conditions are dynamic within a restaurant. They can change within a few minutes. Conditions that are proper can turn to improper and dangerous in a matter of minutes. If you’ve got refrigeration and warming tables that are keeping prepared foods warm prior to being served, or a refrigeration table that are keeping cold foods cold prior to preparation or service, you’re not going to get bacterial growth. But if you get a breakdown that allows those temperatures to move into the danger, that breakdown can happen suddenly. A refrigeration unit can suffer a power outage, or a gas powered heating table may not be turned up hot enough. People can be using the equipment improperly. If an inspector goes into a restaurant, he can find really good conditions one day, or come back later that afternoon and find that due to a dropoff of chickens that are dropped off, and they’ve had insufficient time to be put into refrigeration. That could present a factor that could lead to food borne illness. Food handlers and restaurant operators have to be constantly vigilant, so as conditions change, they can make the proper adjustment.

JL: What would you tell somebody who isn’t willing to eat at a restaurant with a B rating?

AB: By extension, a B rating reflects the conditions that were noticed during the time of inspection. It’s a snapshot in time. We have to realize that. An inspector may go into a restaurant three times a year and assess conditions in that restaurant. These are unannounced inspections by the way. On the basis of that snapshot. Those conditions can change when we’re not in there. You really should not judge it based on one grade, especially if it’s a B. It’s much more reliable to see their grade based on the previous three years of inspection, or one year of inspection, so looking at the trend or looking at the history, is more important than the graded inspection, but the graded inspection gives you information as to what was observed during the last inspection.

JL: Does the same hold true for a C rating?

AB: Absolutely, but the lower the rating, the more deficiencies were found during the inspection. A C rating really reflects a higher degree of noncompliance than a B rating or an A rating. Take it into proper context. C rating, same deal…What we’ve found is that restaurants that consistently get high marks, they’re really diligent about insuring food safety continuously. They’re constantly thinking about food temperatures, potential contamination, proper refrigeration, food storage.

JL: How can the public find this data on trends?

AB: They can look up the compliance history for the facility, what was found on prior inspections.

JL: How has working as a restaurant inspector helped or hindered your enjoyment of food?

AB: Some of the things you see as an inspector, they’re sobering. Sometimes you see conditions and really wonder what the operator or food handler was thinking about. I think a lot about the source of foods, where they’re getting their raw materials, and also how they’re storing.

Cady Manin: What’s the worst offense/most blatant disregard for regulations that you have come across in the field?

AB: One of the most repulsive things I saw was rat droppings in a bin that was holding dry rice, and I remember calling the intention of the operator to that, and he very quickly pulled out the droppings, thinking it was cured. Rather than deal with the infestation of rodents he had, he picked the droppings out. I wondered how many times that he had done it. It seemed so natural for him to reach out and flick out the droppings, even in front of a health inspector. There are certain operators who would switch into high gear, figure out where’s the infestation and correct the source of the problem immediately. That man that I’m talking about, his way of thinking was that he had corrected the problem when he flicked those droppings out of the bin, but a properly trained operator will think, what is the source of this problem?

I’ve also seen chickens piled on the walk-in floor in a puddle of chicken juice and cleaning solution. That made an impression on me as well.

Tara de Lis: Has anybody ever offered you a bribe, and what happened to that person as a result?

AB: No, I’ve never been offered a bribe.

JL: Has that happened to another field inspector?

AB: It has happened.

JL: What would happen to the person who offered a bribe?

AB: We would refer the matter to the local prosecutorial agency and request that they file charges. When I was a young inspector, I walked into a facility one time, and when I got back to my car, there was a bouquet of flowers in my car. I went to the nearest bin and put the flowers in the nearest dumpster. When I told an old time inspector, he told me there was probably money rolled up, and I wondered how the old inspector knew that. This was after he was retired.

JL: What measures does L.A. County take to ensure that enforcement is consistent, regardless of the restaurant inspector?

AB: Proper training, and proper written procedures and policies. We have more work to do in that area because consistent interpretation and enforcement of the laws is a continuing challenge. We have more that we need to do in that area, but the short answer is proper training, and proper written policies and procedures that inspectors can refer to so we’re standardizing the options during inspections.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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