Restaurant inspectors keep local eateries safe for consumers

By ALEX FRUIN
School of Communication
University of Miami

Hundreds of South Floridians flock to restaurants across the City of Coral Gables each night — but most are probably not aware of the fact that, in the last five months, hundreds of food service violations have been reported about these establishments.

Food must be handled with safety in mind. Source: Alex Fruin.

According to data compiled by inspectors from the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation’s Division of Hotels and Restaurants, the city’s 158 food service establishments have accumulated more than 1,000 violations since the 2010-11 fiscal year began July 1.

Since then, nearly 66 percent of Coral Gables’ restaurants have undergone at least one inspection. The DBPR is required to inspect each restaurant a minimum of two times each year.

“All of our inspections are unannounced, typically during normal working hours,” said Alexis Lambert, spokesperson for the DBPR. The department is headquartered in Tallahassee but has local offices for each of the seven districts, including one in Miami.

Inspections usually last for more than an hour as a worker from the DBPR walks with the manager to get a thorough look around the establishment. The inspector searches for instances of more than 50 potential violations of the state’s food safety practices.

According to Lambert, the state has “adopted the terms ‘critical’ and ‘noncritical’ from the FDA food code to distinguish between the violations.”

Critical violations are those defined by the FDA as those “which if not corrected, are more likely to directly contribute to food contamination, illness or environmental degradation.” More than 70 percent of the 1,024 violations reported in Coral Gables restaurants this fiscal year fall into this category, with nearly 40 percent of those coming from only the top four infractions.

Most critical violations arise from problems related to temperature control, both in storage and cooking procedures. One such infraction that accounts for 10 percent of all restaurant violations in Coral Gables occurs when inspectors find instances of improper food protection during “storage, preparation, display, service, or transportation.”

Although these high numbers may have many diners thinking of dropping their forks and opting to dine at home, this drastic measure is not necessary. It’s uncommon for any food establishment — no matter the type — to have a perfect inspection, according Lambert.

“If there is an immediate health risk to the public, an emergency closure will occur,” Lambert said.

The last emergency closure in Coral Gables took place in mid-April when Indian Palate (2120 Salzedo St.) was shut down after inspectors found roach activity on the property. Most establishments that experience emergency closures are able to reopen after 24 hours and another inspection that deems the restaurant sanitary. Indian Palate was reopened in April, but according to its website, shut its doors for good at the end of October.

Restaurants can also experience emergency shutdowns if the establishment is not licensed by the Florida DBPR’s Division of Hotels and Restaurants, which is responsible for keeping track of the licensing for more than 38,000 food services across the state.

While emergency shutdowns are rare in Coral Gables, other forms of disciplinary action, such as fines, have taken place this year for a number of restaurants. Many times, after an inspection, the safety and sanitation worker will return shortly after the initial visit. According to DBPR procedure, if on the follow-up inspection the same violations are repeated, fines can be imposed.

Recently, Villagio, a popular Italian restaurant found in the Village at Merrick Park was fined $4,000 when the eight violations of a June 2010 inspection were not corrected upon the inspector’s next visit.

Food preparation follows specific health rules. Source: Alex Fruin.

“The goal of the inspections is to make sure establishments are using proper safety and sanitation methods,” said Lambert. The DBPR fines restaurants “in order to prevent future occurrences of cross-contamination and food borne illnesses.”

Reports from Villagio’s most recent inspection on Oct. 25 show that the restaurant met inspection standards and no further action will be taken.

In addition to violations dealing with food preparation, the DBPR is also responsible for checking to make sure all published or advertised statements relating to the food is truthful in nature. While violations with false or misleading statements are considered to be noncritical, according to Lambert, this is a violation that typically results in immediate fines. In 2010, there have been no instances of misrepresentation of menu items found in any Coral Gables restaurants.

While these numbers and reports of the violations of Coral Gables’ 158 food establishments may be somewhat surprising — and frightening for consumers who often choose to dine out, the city’s statistics are actually much lower than many cities throughout Miami-Dade County and the entire state of Florida.

For those consumers who are still uneasy about dining out, the DBPR reminds visitors to its databases that the reported violations show simply “a ‘snapshot’ of conditions present at the time of the inspection. On any given day, an establishment may have fewer or more violations than noted in their most recent inspection.”

Food waiting to be served. Source: Alex Fruin.

Anyone can access the information acquired during these inspections on the department’s website, which is updated daily with the most recent violation totals for food establishments throughout the state of Florida.

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UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI FOOD SERVICE SITES
REGULATED BY COUNTY HEALTH DEPARTMENT

While the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation is responsible for the licensing and inspections of nearly every food service in the state, visitors to the database may notice that there seem to be a number of Coral Gables restaurants and food establishments missing. The database does not include any of the many establishments on the University of Miami campus—no dining halls, coffee carts, or food court restaurants seem to be inspected.

University of Miami food services — as well as any other food service on campuses in Miami-Dade County — are not regulated by the state’s DBPR, according to Anne Marie Alderman, advisor to the county’s Food and Group Care Unit.

“The county has never been the agency that handles food in Dade County. But all food services on any campus — UM, FIU, Barry and other schools — are licensed through the Miami-Dade Department of Health,” she explained.

This means that the safety and sanitation inspectors that visit most establishments in Miami-Dade County do not visit the University of Miami campus. Instead, health inspectors are sent from the County’s Department of Health to monitor proper food service on campuses.

While this may seem a bit strange to have two different agencies regulating the same county, according to Alderman, there really isn’t that big of a difference: “We look for pretty much the same things in terms of basic code and violations for on campus establishments.”

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