Walk in the Shoes of a County Employee – Christopher Skilton, Public Health, Food and Facilities Protection
For the most recent participant in the Walk in the Shoes of a County Employee, I chose Health and Environmental Investigator Cristopher Skilton from the Public Health department’s Food and Facilities Protection section.
As someone who enjoys dining across our region, I was interested to spend a few hours with a restaurant health inspector learning how King County works with restaurants to keep the public healthy and safe. As I experienced Chris’ day-to-day routine, I learned that the investigator’s role is much more complex and collaborative than it’s traditionally been.
We began our day at University Village shopping area in Seattle, which has nearly 30 food businesses (out of nearly 10,000 countywide) offering a wide variety of site visit opportunities. First up: looking over an outline of activities in a typical visit then reviewing summaries from previous visits to seven candidate businesses.
Five were scheduled for unannounced, scored inspections, which happen twice each year for most eateries. The remaining two sites had the option of unscored educational consultations, which can be requested at any time and which give business owners a chance for no-penalty guidance on issues that could become inspection problems if not addressed.
One of my favorite vegetarian restaurants was on the list, and since it was near lunch time I grabbed a bite before our inspection. Then Chris introduced himself to the staff and I watched as he demonstrated the techniques, tools, and strategies for a site inspection, which is aimed at checking that food is being stored, prepared and served properly.
I learned that violations fall into two categories: “red critical” violations are those most likely to cause food-borne illnesses and must be corrected immediately. These include food not hot or cold enough, or insufficient hand washing. “Blue violations” may not cause illness, but are clear maintenance and sanitation issues. They won’t make you sick, but could make you queasy just thinking about the possibilities. In this case, the inspector noted two red critical violations that were cited, but they were corrected immediately and did not rise to the level of triggering follow-up visits or sanctions.
During the visits, Chris checked food temperatures, inspected food storage conditions, and verified that sanitizers were being used correctly. I was impressed to see that he used the visits as opportunities to educate and serve as a courteous and professional resource to the food service owners and staff, rather than being punitive in his approach.
Our next stop was a location which had passed the first inspection of the year and was due for a follow up. Chris spotted areas needing improvement and counseled the operators on necessary corrections and violation prevention strategies. During that visit, I helped take food temperatures and observed as Chris and the staff discussed risk areas, such as the meat slicer, which is notoriously difficult to clean.
Our third stop was another location which had received an educational visit earlier in the year. There, the challenges observed on the first visit had not been fully resolved, including a cold holding violation, where food was not stored at temperatures cold enough to prevent food borne diseases. Chris cited the business, which immediately corrected the situation.
As a former food service worker – from slinging fish and chips to bussing tables to tending bar in a half a dozen establishments during high school and college – I was very interested in seeing these inspections from the other side. I was impressed that, despite difficult cutbacks in Public Health staff, these important services are still being delivered at a very high level – welcome news to anyone who goes out to eat in King County.
I was also very pleased to see Chris make an effort to communicate with restaurant owners and staff in Spanish during some of the inspections. We talked about the importance of bilingual staff in these positions to better serve our increasingly diverse region, including owners and staff in the food service industry who create jobs and help drive the economy in King County.
I walked away with an even greater appreciation for the high-volume, detailed work of our food inspectors, who help maintain the public health of our region by keeping restaurants, food and coffee carts, delis, and the fresh food sections in grocery stores as safe as possible. I thank Chris Skilton for sharing his knowledge, ideas, and insights about our food inspection process. You can learn more about how your favorite restaurant fared in its last inspection on the Public Health food inspection reporting system on our website.
If you are doing a job that you think I should experience as part of the Walk in the Shoes of a County Employee program, please submit an invitation. I look forward to new opportunities to see more of our diverse lines of business and meet the people who serve the residents and customers of King County.
King County Executive