Red flags to avoid dirty dining

Food safety is in the spotlight after two Columbia restaurants were closed after getting bad reviews by customers and inspectors.

Famous Cajun Grill and Stir Fry 88 in the Columbia Mall food court were closed in early October after inspectors found roaches, and 19 critical food code violations. The two jointly owned restaurants have since re-opened and seen a change in management.

It takes 10 critical violations to close a restaurant, 25 non-critical violations or a combination of both totaling 30 according to the Boone County Health Department. While the roaches were visible at the food court stores, Boone County Health Dept. Division Supervisor Kala Gunier says there are other problems that are more likely to make you sick.

"It's what goes on behind the scenes," Gunier explains. "Are the hot foods hot and the cold foods cold? Are employees practicing good food safety techniques?"

Columbia has 6 health inspectors for 800 food establishments.That translates into an inspection just 2 to 3 times a year for most restaurants. Some will need re-inspections as well, like the two mall stores which were checked again before re-opening.

Gunier also reminds the public that restaurant inspections are only part of an inspector's job. They also inspect swimming pools and follow up on nuisance complaints among other duties.

So, is there a way to spot problems in-between inspections? KRCG followed Gunier into the kitchen at Chris McD's Restaurant to see what inspectors are looking for behind the scenes. Gunier recommended Chris McD's because of their reputation for having a clean kitchen.

Gunier says most inspections will take an hour. She takes the temperature of many different foods to be sure that cold foods are being stored at the proper temperature and hot foods are heated properly.

Pasta and salad dressing need to be 41-45 degrees, while hot foods like soup need to reach 140 degrees. The danger zone is anywhere in between.

Food service workers learn about the dangers of food contamination during a mandatory class. The health department holds them several times a month and a recent class was packed with people getting a food handlers license or renewing one. The one hour class is required every three years and will cost the employee or their employer $15.

Chris McD's owner Chris McDonnell says the food handler classes are invaluable, but that training is an ongoing job. "It's the smaller things, changing out your cutting boards, making sure you sanitize your knife before you go onto another project," says McDonnell.

He says the food inspection report is helpful for him to see what equipment may need to be serviced to keep in compliance.

Inspectors like Gunier look at a laundry list of items in the kitchen. The dishwasher must get hot enough to sanitize dishes. There can't be mold in the ice maker and bleach must be present in a bucket used for cleaning food preparation surfaces. Inspectors observe to see if employees are washing their hands or coming to work sick.

When you can't see inside the kitchen you can look for other tell tale signs that you are at risk of dirty dining. Look for dirty silverware, lipstick not washed off glasses, dirty tables, floors or restrooms. Smell for problems. Gunier says red flags are the smell of a clogged grease trap, rotting food and sewage. Another items to check is the condiments on your table. If they aren't clean there's a good chance there's a problem with your food as well.

You can check out inspection reports before you go out to eat, they're posted on the City of Columbia's web site.