A state initiative to ensure cleaner restaurants by using color-coded placards and more health inspectors will apply to restaurants and cafeterias at UH.
Most campus restaurants, cafeterias and food trucks will have their placards within the next six months, according to Department of Health environmental health program manager Peter Oshiro.
Inspectors started issuing grades across the state on July 21, beginning with high risk locations. There are three grades: “pass,” “conditional pass” or “closed.” Oshiro said that, at present, the health department rarely closes establishments more than twice a year.
Oshiro said that all inspections are surprises, but restaurants have had months to prepare.
When the new rules were signed by the governor in late February, health officials started visiting establishments to get them ready for the inspections.
Hawaiʻi joins other American municipalities that grade restaurant sanitation and mandate establishments display their scores conspicuously. Oshiro estimated that only half of American cities do it. Some use letter grades, some use percentage points and others use color coding.
“It’s about public transparency,” Oshiro said.
While green, yellow or red placards – denoting pass, warning or closure statuses – go up in dining rooms across the state, it’s what’s happening behind the scenes that Oshiro believes will protect Hawaiʻi’s restaurant-goers from foodborne diseases.
The health department hired more inspectors this year and says it will add more in the coming months. It now has 25, and Oshiro said that six more will be hired.
More hires will help the department keep up with inspections.
Oshiro said that before he arrived at his current position in the health department, establishments would be inspected on average once every two years, and that up to 80 percent of those establishments were found to have major violations. Major violations include not keeping cold foods at or below 41 degrees Fahrenheit or not keeping equipment for raw and ready-to-eat foods separate.
“A dirty floor or a dirty wall isn’t a major violation,” Oshiro said.
He said that nine inspectors, the number on staff before the department started ramping up its operations, wasn’t enough.
Oshiro said in the past that the health department chased after restaurants to get inspected. Now “restaurants are chasing us.”
When a restaurant is closed or passes inspection conditionally, inspectors usually return within 48 hours to see if health hazards have been eliminated. Oshiro added that businesses can call and arrange for earlier inspections if they’ve fixed problems sooner.
According to Oshiro, Hawaiʻi’s new system was modeled after another in Sacramento, California that was launched more than five years ago. Sacramento’s food safety program is nationally recognized, Oshiro said. In 2008, Sacramento won the Samuel Crumbine Award for Excellence in Food Protection.
Bronson Calles, a Hawaiian language major who plans to graduate this year, said he didn’t notice the green placard that said “pass” when he walked into the campus Ba-Le. The placard was taped to a glass pane next to one of the restaurant’s doors.
Calles heard about the new grading system.
“It’s a good thing to be watching out for these illnesses,” he said. Calles said he suspects he had food poisoning once. “It was bad,” he said, “you can’t eat, it’s a pain.” Calles said he thinks the food safety initiative is a good thing. “We don’t want to be eating in dirty places,” he said.
Culinary arts students at Kapiʻolani Community College are required to take a course in food safety and sanitation.
Henry Holthaus is a Kapiʻolani Community College culinary arts instructor who teaches the two-credit, semester-long course in food safety. Holthaus said culinary arts majors usually take the sanitation class in their first semester, and that it’s a prerequisite for culinary lab courses.
Holthaus said the department’s push for cleaner restaurants is long overdue.
“It’s about time,” Holthaus said. Holthaus said he advocated for a similar program in the ‘90s when he was on a food safety panel that reported to the governor.
Holthaus’s food safety-themed television program airs on ‘Ōlelo. It’s called Shig Happens. Shig, short for Shigella, is a bacteria found in human feces. Holthaus said Shigella makes its way into food when preparers don’t wash their hands after using the toilet. The bacteria causes a condition called Shigellosis that can lead to fevers, bloody diarrhea and stomach cramps.
Holthaus said he teaches students “how not to kill people with the food they cook, or make them sick and wish they were dead.”
According to Holthaus, there are four areas of food safety: personal hygiene, temperature and time control, eliminating cross contamination, and purchasing food from reliable sources.
Health department inspectors look at all of these.
According to the Department of Health’s checklist for avoiding critical violations, other things that may close an establishment include vermin infestations, no hot or cold running water and backed-up sewage.