The following students from a Spring 2009 Journalism 410 class contributed to the story:
Samantha Minton, Kristyn Fryrear, Robert Cisneros, Casey Rowley, Tiaira Nowlin, Cynthia Martinez, Mariana Enriquez, Shayla Selva, Gail Moscoso
When it comes to the inspection reports, letter grades can be misleading, and the rating system can be confusing. Dining at a high-grade restaurant doesn’t mean the eatery is without problems.
While one place may have attained an ‘A’ grade, it may have been closed down at one point for something serious, or it hasn’t been re-inspected recently, said Dr. Owen Seiver, CSUN professor in environmental and occupational health.
The risk factor could be far less at a place with a ‘B’ grade if the establishment was inspected recently and got the grade for something unrelated to food preparation, or for something that doesn’t present as big of a risk for the food preparation, Seiver said.
Some of the more common violations for restaurants in Los Angeles County are minor cleaning problems with surfaces that don’t go into contact with food, parts of the establishment in disrepair, and using multiple servings of potentially hazardous food.
It takes something drastic, such as rodents or operating with open sewage, to shut down a dining establishment, said health officials. Basically, something that can’t be fixed quickly and can pose an immediate threat to the public’s safety can close an establishment.
LACDPH officials would interview the restaurant’s management about its knowledge of the violations. If the restaurant wants to reopen, managers have to fix all the major violations and undergo reinspection.
If an establishment is closed on multiple occasions, it can lose its license to operate.
Los Angeles County Health Manager Thomas West said in a phone interview that the current grading system has helped create a higher standard of food safety for customers. The biggest concern for food safety is the prevention of food-borne illnesses, which have been estimated to cause six million to 81 million illnesses and up to 9,000 deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Experts say those numbers are not entirely accurate since only a fraction of food-borne illness cases are reported or confirmed by medical authorities.
Last June, local news media reported that fresh raw tomatoes had to be pulled from all campus food services due to a Salmonella outbreak. Restaurants and supermarkets in the area surrounding the campus also stopped offering tomatoes.
Although this outbreak took place just last year, the student journalists could not find any hospitals in the surrounding area that had treated any local food-borne illness cases.
In a phone interview, Karen Keifer, the dietician nurse at Mission Community Hospital in Panorama City, said that at least two people must have the same symptoms or have been made ill by the same source to classify an ailment as a food-borne illness.
Once a food-borne illness case has been identified, it should be reported to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. In addition, patients cannot be released until it has been determined by medical professionals that the illness has been controlled.
Officials of Mission Community Hospital, said they had not seen any cases within the last 10 years, while representatives at Good Samaritan Hospital could only guarantee that no staff member or patient had become ill from food served at the hospital. The Good Samaritan officials said they did not have records of who had been treated for illnesses originating from sources outside the facility.
Verdugo Hospital officials said they had not seen any cases within the last year, either. Most of the hospitals’ officials cited the U.S. Health Insurance Privacy and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in declining to release any information about food-borne illnesses. HIPAA was passed in 1996 to protect health information. Many also claimed that they did not keep records on those admitted for Salmonella, prompting several formal Freedom of Information Act requests for information. The requests are currently pending.
According to the CDC’s Web site, 44 percent of food-borne illness outbreaks originate from restaurants, and more than half of those cases, probable contributing factors were unknown.
On their Web site, CDC officials said the food supply is safer today than it was 50 years ago because of pasteurization and cleaner water, among other reasons. They do acknowledge that while significant improvements exist in the meat and poultry industry, more work is needed in the produce department where food-borne illness cases have been increasing.
To look further into the quality of food and potential illness outbreaks on campus, student journalists conducted their own unofficial survey of 122 people, polling students, staff and faculty members on campus food safety issues. Students discovered a number of respondents had negative experiences, and more than 15 percent said they became ill after eating on campus.
Many of the student respondents insisted that the grade of the establishment highly affects their decision on whether they chose to eat there or not. After taking surveys, student journalists read violations from recent reports on campus eateries. After hearing violations, even with an ‘A,’ students said the grade perhaps did not matter at all.
Aside from grading systems, CSUN has its own regulations on campus food safety through departments and organizations. The CSUN Environmental Management System (EMS) helps regulate food and employee safety, especially if there is an investigation or complaint. The department also authorizes the types of foods that can be sold on campus and at campus fundraisers.
University Corporation (UC) works with L.A. County making sure campus eateries are up to regulation and code (grading). UC also authorizes the kinds of eateries that are allowed on campus. The facilities and projects manager for UC, Tim Killops, is in charge of overseeing the regulation of campus eateries.
Killops said if students feel they are getting sick from the food or seeing potential problems with campus food preparation then they should report it to the restaurant’s manager or tell UC. For now there have been no reported problems concerning students getting sick from the campus food.