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Public Health - Seattle & King County

Common questions about food safety

1.
What does the Public Health Food Protection Program do?

Public Health's role is to carry out a community-wide program for food safety to promote health and prevent disease through education, training and regulation. This system is designed to work in partnership with the people who make the day-to-day decisions that actually determine food safety - the operators and employees of food service establishments.

Public Health issues permits to operate food service establishments once they meet all the requirements of the King County Food Code, then educates the managers and workers to help them operate safely. Continuing education on food safety is offered in several ways.

  • All food workers must attend a class and pass a written test on food safety to receive a food worker permit. Information is in the "Working Healthy" booklet that is available in Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Russian as well as English. Translators are available for those for whom we don't have a translation, or who cannot read. The permit is good for 2 to 5 years.
  • Each year, each establishment gets a certain number of unannounced routine inspections by an Food Safety Inspector. Routine inspections address safe food handling practices. These are recognized by Public Health and the establishment as opportunities to educate the operators and their crews. As the Food Safety Inspector finds problems, recorded on the inspection form as red or blue points, she/he also demonstrates or explains the correct way to prepare and care for the food safely. The number of inspections made each year is based on the type of food served and how it is prepared.
  • Food safety inspectors provide at least one education visit annually to selected establishments to help the kitchen staff and managers learn more about food safety. Educational visits are not inspections, and no violations are noted.
  • One of the educational materials available to each establishment is a King County video on food safety. It is available in English, open and closed captioned, Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, Vietnamese and Russian.

There are approximately 34 food safety inspectors who monitor approximately 10,500 food service establishments and about 2,500 temporary food booths. In 2010, they conducted 17,278 food service inspections, including 1,000 complaint investigations.

When necessary, Food Safety Inspectors take action to enforce the King County Food Code. Actions are taken when there is an immediate health risk or the operation has not responded to previous inspections and trainings.

2.
Who is responsible for food safety in food service establishments?

The operator or the owner of the food service establishment is responsible for food safety and code compliance. Public Health assists and supports the food service establishment in fulfilling its responsibilities through education, training, monitoring and regulation.

3.
When is an inspection "unsatisfactory"?

Whenever a "red critical violation" is noted, it is called an unsatisfactory inspection. "Red critical violations" occur when an inspector finds a problem in food preparation, cooking, cooling, or the temperature of food that could lead to a food borne illness.

4.
Are all "red critical" violations the same?

No. Red critical violations indicate the most serious risks of food borne illness and the higher the value, the higher the risk. The violation points for each item range from 5 to 30. However, a red critical violation worth 30 points may create more risk than a combination of smaller violations that add up to 30. This point system is used statewide and was developed by a panel of food safety experts from several health departments.

5.
What are blue violation items?

Blue items are generally cleanliness issues, like clean floors, walls, and ceilings. They are not likely to directly contribute to food borne illness and are therefore given less priority.

6.
Does an unsatisfactory inspection mean the food safety inspector will always come back to check on that "red critical violation?"

No. Only if there are more than 35 total "red critical" points will a reinspection be done. When there are fewer than 35 red points, the Food Safety Inspector looks at the seriousness of the violation(s) and the history of the establishment to determine if a reinspection is necessary. Typically, if the violation is a one time occurrence, education or technical assistance during that routine inspection is all that is necessary to correct the problem.

7.
When do you close an establishment?

Food Safety Inspectors close an establishment when:

  • it is found to have 90 or more "red critical" points or more than 120 total points (a combination of red critical and blue violation points).
  • three occurrences of the same red item violation within twelve months with the exception of 5 point red items.
  • there is what health officials call "an imminent health hazard," such as lack of water in the establishment; or,
  • the establishment is operating without a permit.
8.
What kinds of enforcement actions can Public Health take?

Public Health - Seattle & King County has the authority to:

  • suspend an establishment's operating permit until the problem is fixed
  • revoke an establishment's permit if it has had its permit suspended three times in a 12 month period;
  • revoke the permit if the owner has assaulted, threatened or repeatedly interfered with the Public Health employee in the performance of his/her duty
  • use civil penalties. Civil penalties were designed for situations where the penalty is assessed against the owner of the real property. In most cases, this means that the penalty would be assessed against the landlord, not the food establishment operator.
9.
How can a customer best assure safe food in a food establishment?

Customers expect good, safe food, clean surroundings, and pleasant service. The most important questions they can ask themselves are, "Is the hot food hot and the cold food cold?" and "Is my food thoroughly cooked?" If the answer to these questions is "no," send the food back.

If you can see food workers at work, notice whether they are washing their hands when they come into the kitchen, and whether they are using utensils or gloves when touching food that is ready to be served.

Be certain there are warm water, soap and paper towels in the restroom. If there is no warm water, tell the management right away. If there is no soap or no towels, ask the manager to restock.

An establishment that appears neat and clean generally gives the impression that the management cares about doing things right and well. However, cleanliness does not correlate with safe food handling practices, nor does it guarantee the food is safe.