It was lunchtime one recent weekday in the kitchen of the New Beijing restaurant in Fairfax City. Trays of raw chicken breasts were improperly defrosting at room temperature. Pools of cooking oil lay on the floor underneath cooking equipment. Blackened grease had accumulated in the hoods above the oven. The drain in the sink where workers washed their hands was clogged with food, and a handle was missing from the faucet.
But it was a dead roach behind some packages of napkins that stopped county food safety inspector Patrick L. Jones. He found more dead roaches on shelves holding unused, grimy cooking equipment. Shining a flashlight into deeper recesses of the tiny kitchen and under stoves and fryers, he saw bugs scatter.
Jones closed the restaurant, citing unsanitary conditions and an infestation of roaches. New Beijing, a takeout place near Fairfax Circle, reopened later that day after workers cleaned and fixed the problems. All were violations of county regulations, but Jones decided to shut New Beijing down after seeing the roaches, which are considered evidence of an imminent health hazard.
Jones is one of 13 county inspectors charged with protecting the public's health by investigating Fairfax's 3,100 food service establishments, which include not only restaurants but also convenience stores, school cafeterias and mobile food carts. He is one of the faces behind the "Health Code Violations" feature that appears each week in Fairfax Extra, a list of local eateries shut down for everything from roaches to such seemingly arcane reasons as "no certified food manager on duty."
A reporter recently followed Jones on his rounds to see what inspectors do and why they order a restaurant to be closed. The county handles inspections in Fairfax, Fairfax City, the city of Falls Church and the towns of Clifton, Herndon and Vienna.
The job is important in a county where people eat out regularly. About one in four Fairfax adults eat at sit-down restaurants six or more times in an average month, compared with about one in five adults in the Washington area, according to Scarborough Research. Sometimes they get sick; state health officials said there were 251 cases of food-borne illnesses reported over a three-year period ending in 2002, the most recent period records were available for Fairfax.
Food safety is also critical in a county with a burgeoning immigrant population, health officials said. Many ethnic restaurants are run by immigrants who are accustomed to little or no oversight in their home countries, officials said, and the language barrier makes it hard for many of them to clearly understand how to comply with local regulations.
Kimberly Cordero, a spokeswoman for the county Health Department, said Fairfax residents speak some 120 languages, complicating a food inspector's job of instructing a restaurant's staff on clean, safe ways to operate. The county offers a translation service by telephone that helps break the language barriers.
For the most part, however, industry and government officials said patrons of Fairfax restaurants do not have anything to worry about.
"Overall, I would say the restaurants are in pretty good shape," said James Armstrong, who oversees food inspections for the county. "We do quite a thorough inspection."
A typical inspection for Jones begins when he walks in, introduces himself and presents his credentials. Inspections are always unannounced and may be part of a regularly scheduled rotation or a response to a specific complaint from the public. The county has its own regulations, but the criteria for food safety are based on U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations.
Jones's first task is identifying the certified food manager, a restaurant employee specially trained to guide the rest of the staff on handling food safely. If no such supervisor is present, Jones can continue with the inspection, but unless the manager arrives before Jones is done, the restaurant will be closed regardless of how well it complied with other health regulations.
"It's very important that the certified food manager is present, because it is his duty to make sure the employees are trained on how to handle food, how to take the temperatures and make sure the food is cooked properly," said Jones, 37.
Jones quizzes the certified food manager on his knowledge of the restaurant's menu, checking on whether correct preparation techniques are used.
At a recent inspection of the Bob Evans restaurant in Oakton, certified food manager Kevin Johnson was well prepared for Jones's questions. "The minimum cooking temperature for beef would be 350 [degrees]," was Johnson's correct answer to one question. "Chicken is also cooked on a 350 grill and served at 175 degrees."
"Excellent," Jones said, noting that Bob Evans's policy is more stringent than county Health Department regulations, which require that chicken be served at a minimum of 165 degrees. "What is the minimum temperature that you guys maintain the walk-in cooler at?"
Johnson: "The minimum temperature is 35 degrees."
Jones: "Okay. And the freezer is?"
Johnson: "Zero, plus or minus five degrees."
Jones: "The minimum requirement for Fairfax County is 41 for the cooling unit. For the freezer, as long as everything is frozen, you are fine. Great job."
Jones stressed the importance of a steady, knowledgeable food manager. Since there are only one or two inspections a year, the manager is usually the only staff member who knows if a condition, such as inadequate heating or cooling temperatures, or employees' failure to wash their hands properly, could endanger public safety.
So-called high-risk restaurants such as New Beijing and Bob Evans -- places that prepare raw ingredients such as beef, fish and chicken or that serve items not fully cooked, such as eggs over-easy -- should be inspected every few months, Jones said. But staffing shortages and budget constraints have limited the number of inspections to less often than that, he said.
At New Beijing, the county allowed the manager to reopen the same day the restaurant was closed only after visits from a pest control service and a cleaning crew. Although the problems at New Beijing appeared to Jones to have been long-standing, he cautioned that a report from any given inspection is only a "snapshot" of what the restaurant was like that day. A restaurant that might normally be exemplary could suddenly have a staffing crisis or other unexpected event that caused the place to be a mess on the day the inspector walked in. Or an establishment might have been operating on the margins of safety for some time but could have had an infrequent, detailed cleaning just before an inspector's visit.
Bob Evans fared better with its surprise inspection than New Beijing. Jones pointed out a bit of grime on the inside of an ice machine door, a cracked floor tile and a scored, hard-to-clean cutting board, but those were deemed "noncritical," or minor, code violations. A few critical violations -- which need to be corrected immediately -- were noted, too, including an employee's drink without a lid (to prevent it from spilling into the food) and some improperly stored chemical spray bottles on a shelf with drying dishes.
"Those kind of things you can correct on the site," Jones said. "Food temperatures were really good. That's the most important thing: hot foods hot, cold foods cold." All of the violations taken together did not add up to the "imminent health hazard" that would require to Jones to close the restaurant.
"We try to correct all criticals at the time of the inspection," Jones said. "The critical violations have to be corrected within 10 days, unless it's an imminent health hazard. Then it's immediate closure."
Such immediate health hazards include sewage backups, fires, inadequate refrigeration, a lack of hot water and a rodent or insect infestation. The inspector has the discretion to close the place on the spot if he believes the restaurant has enough critical violations to constitute an imminent health hazard. Otherwise, the establishment has 10 days to correct the problems. If they are not fixed, the restaurant is warned that its permit could be revoked. In serious cases, a hearing is held before county health supervisors, and the restaurant is put on a schedule of frequent inspections. There are no fines, unlike in the District and some of the Maryland suburbs.
In Jones's three years of working for the county, he said, a Fairfax restaurant has yet to close permanently because it could not find a way to comply with regulations. "Once they get to the enforcement stage and come to a hearing, it's amazing how quickly they get everything in order."
When a closure is necessary, Jones said he rarely has a problem. "Because of my approach and positive attitude, if there is an imminent health hazard, most of the time, they'll voluntarily say, 'You know what, Mr. Jones, you're right, because you pointed out the rationale, we know the consequences,' and it's not any big debate."
Jones, an affable man with 13 years' experience, said the county's inspectors view themselves more as teachers than enforcers.
"The main focus is education," he said. "We think education is a preventative method. If I point out a violation, I give them the rationale behind it. What is critical about this violation? Why is it important that it be corrected? Another thing I also do, I always point out the positive things they do. What that does is lower the walls, the boundaries, so [the restaurant staff] can feel we are working as a team to prevent any type of food-borne illness or any type of outbreak."
At New Beijing, for example, Jones asked the staff to line up for a demonstration of careful, thorough hand-washing: hot water, soap and at least 20 seconds of scrubbing before drying with a clean paper towel. He explained to the staff how to develop a schedule of regular cleaning and maintenance that would prevent future closings. He gave his cell phone number to New Beijing's manager so he could call Jones later in the day to come back after the problems were corrected.
Jones, who averages four to six inspections a day, also dropped in recently at an Arthur Treacher's in Fairfax, where he found several critical violations. That visit was a stark contrast to the HoneyBaked Ham store on Main Street in Fairfax City, which was nearly perfect during an earlier inspection.
Establishments owned by corporations have an advantage over smaller, independently owned operations, Jones said. The corporate stores usually have food safety guidelines of their own that are more stringent than the Health Department's. And they often have money to spend on contracts with maintenance and pest control companies that can be reached quickly to correct problems even while the inspector is still there.
Kenneth Taylor, a manager at the HoneyBaked Ham store, said the Ohio-based company has strict food preparation policies. Even minor, noncritical violations are quickly corrected, said Taylor, who said he studied at the Culinary Institute of America.
A spokesman for the county's restaurant industry said Fairfax's inspectors have a good reputation among restaurateurs. Lynne Breaux, executive director of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, said compared with other jurisdictions, Fairfax's inspectors "are very proactive. I think they are really strong."
So where do the county's food safety inspectors go to eat when they are on the job?
Fast-food places, mostly, because they generally are clean and keep food preparation to a minimum. "Everything comes in pre-cooked," Jones explained. "They reheat on a steamer. It's such a simple process, just reheat and quick serve. With places like that, we don't have a lot of complaints. We don't have a lot of outbreaks, because they keep it so simple."
Jones said it is sometimes hard to enjoy a local dining experience because it brings him too close to his work during off time. But he added that the county is a "wonderful, diverse place to dine" and that most restaurants are "decent, safe and good places to eat."
At home in Woodbridge, husband, father and inspector Jones has kitchen patrol, naturally.
"I've been married for 13 years," he said. "One agreement is that I take care of the kitchen and I take care of the restroom. So in my household, my family doesn't touch the kitchen. It sparkles!"
Fairfax Extra publishes notices of which local restaurants have been closed by the Health Department each week. Detailed reports for many inspections conducted by the Fairfax County Health Department can be found on the Web at www.healthspace.ca/Clients/VDH/Fairfax/Fairfax_Website.nsf.