Let’s get real … no one in the business likes going to the health department or getting a visit from the health inspector. But the reality is that even though there are some bad employees out there as there are everywhere in business, there are a lot of excellent environmental health workers. Their mission is to help you succeed and keep the public, your customers, healthy. If you think about it, the health department and employees are serving you as a business consultant. They are there to confirm you are managing your food establishment successfully and to help you manage your business better with their suggestions.
The question is: When should you reach out to them for help?
I had a student a few months ago who told me that she had a backup of raw sewage in their church kitchen. She told me proudly that she “closed the doors immediately and got the problem fixed and was very careful to have everything cleaned and sanitized, even the walls although nothing could be seen.” I confirmed that she did a good job and then I asked her if she notified the health department. She said, “No.” In my head I was thinking, “I don’t blame you.” But then I started thinking more and replied to her that “maybe she should have.” My response surprised both of us I think. My thinking was – she doesn’t know everything … I don’t know everything … the job of the health department is to guide in these unusual circumstances and to advise if additional actions needed to be done before she reopened.
I had another customer contact me recently. Their catering company had done an event and the client contacted them saying 20 of the attendees were sick. From speaking with her, I agreed that it was most likely not their fault and that the cause seemed to be most likely from an outside source for the cake served. I advised her to freeze the food that they still had leftover in case it would need to be tested to confirm this. I also told her to tell the client to please have the sick people see a doctor to confirm the illness if they were contacted again. I also recommended that she call the health department to show their being proactive.
I am not suggesting here that one call the health department every time someone makes a foodborne illness complaint to your establishment. In this instance, because the quantity of people, 20 or so, is quite a high number, I suggested to the client that they contact the health department for help and guidance in this instance as she was feeling overwhelmed by the accusation.
Now meanwhile, you do not have to call the health department if someone accuses you of making them sick. On a separate note, if a customer calls the health department here in Maryland, they are asked to call 311 to report the foodborne illness incident. Then those complaints are weeded out and are transferred to the Epidemiology Department which will then refer those calls to the corresponding county health department. The corresponding county health departments will then follow up from the contact names of those infected and also provide inspection of the establishment as needed.
Bottom line: an establishment has to close their doors if there is a backup of sewage in the kitchen, lack of refrigeration, or no hot water. Close your doors and be proactive and call your local health department to let them know what is going on. As with any job, you will be recognized as being a business with a reputation for being proactive and, yes, that would be taken into consideration if you ever get into a problem in the future. You also have to work with your health department anytime construction or renovations are made in your building. They need to approve the blueprints before you begin construction. As your “business consultant,” the health department is looking to make sure the flow of food in your facility and the building is conducive for food safety, i.e. to control time and temperature, avoid cross contamination, facilitate proper hygiene and easy to clean and sanitize. It is required for establishments to call the local health department if one of their employees has been excluded for one of the following foodborne illnesses: Hepatitis A, Ecoli, Norovirus, Salmonella or Shigella.
At the end of the day, the relationship you have with your health inspector should never be adversarial. I believe passionately, that if an owner of an establishment makes sure his place is managed pro-actively, then the health inspection process will serve as confirmation of a well-run establishment. If errors are found, this will be considered as a learning process on how to run your establishment better. This means a great manager will run self-inspections to confirm things are well managed. I feel no pity for an establishment who is shut down due to lack of refrigeration. Why would they wait till the health inspector informs them that their refrigeration is broken? For this reason, again, self-inspections are key to a successfully run establishment.”
Trust your health department and reach out to them for guidance.