The chef’s out back in the alley - The Packer

The chef’s out back in the alley

01/20/2012 09:33:00 AM
Chris Koger

Credit some New York eateries for innovation when it comes to skirting food safety regulations.
The Big Apple, like many cities across the country, grades restaurants on inspection results, with “A” being the best. According to a recent New York Daily News article, however, a number of restaurants are using a loophole to classifly themselves as supermarkets or wholesalers.
According to the Daily News, if restaurants supply products — bread, pizza, pie, for example — to grocery stores or wholesale markets, they can avoid registering as restaurants.
In doing so, the restaurants (the Daily News names a Queens Dunkin’ Donuts) are overseen by the state’s Department of Agriculture and Markets, and not the city’s health department.
Presto! No more mandatory grades in the window to alert diners of possible health code violations, and inspections are only once a year.
In the past, as a reporter for several daily newspapers, I covered health inspections, focusing on the restaurants with the most violations. Most writers get a kick out of covering these stories, myself included. 
After all, it’s why most journalists chose their profession — to inform, to make a difference in people’s lives, warning them of danger, corruption, bad apples in the community.
I didn’t have delusions of grandeur like many post-Watergate journalism school grads. The occassional story that got readers’ hackles in an uproar was good enough for me, including restaurant inspection reports.
However damning some of these reports would seem at first, for the most part the restaurants would easily pass on reinspection, with extra training taking care of the minor violations.
I’d have no problem eating at some restaurants, despite what red flags the initial inspections turned up.
One exception: A Chinese restaurant was caught thawing frozen chicken in a garbage-strewn alley, exposed to the sun and a swarm of flies. Operators who think that’s a good idea are too far gone for me to have any faith in them, no matter what happens on follow-up inspections.
I’m interested to see how a new restaurant inspection plan in Chicago works out. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, restaurants with no foodborne illness problems in the past will inspect themselves. This self-certification plan, requiring reports to City Hall, allows the city to focus on high-risk businesses.
Gee, I wonder how this is going to play out, as approved by the City Council’s Committee on Budget and Government Operations. Of the largest fresh produce recalls and outbreaks in recent memory, as reported by The Packer, most haven’t been flagged for violations before. 
Maybe Chicago should worry less about trans fats and more about hiring inspectors. According to the Sun-Times, the city has 15,000 licensed food establishments and 32 field inspectors.
The potential for alley-thawed chicken in Chicago is pretty good.

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