JACKSON COUNTY, Ore. – From restaurants, to food trucks, to hotel breakfasts, there isn’t a single meal served in a public place that escapes the purview of county health inspectors.
Restaurant inspections are the biggest part of what Jackson County Environmental Public Health does. A tiny amount of viral particles, spread from fecal matter into a food supply, can infect a whole community before anyone experiences symptoms.
“For many diseases people can pass it along to others before they know they’re even ill,” said Public Health Medical Director Dr. Jim Shames. “That’s one of the basic principles of public health.”
In order to prevent outbreak, inspectors look at the county’s 665 licensed restaurants twice a year. Those inspections focus on the most basic systems — food temperatures, storage, sanitation, and hand washing.
But despite being thorough, an inspection is only as good as the code it follows. In the past few years, that code has changed significantly based on the statewide adoption of new, and much more lenient, FDA standards.
“They’re no longer deducting points for very low risk elements within the restaurant,” said Health Inspector Brian Shelton. “We’re taking our focus and putting it on intermediate and high level risk areas.”
The new standards, adopted in by the Oregon Health Authority in 2012, have been praised by both health inspectors and restaurant associations. As opposed to previous rules, restaurants that are in general disrepair but have good food handling principles can still achieve perfect scores. Inspectors say that allows them to focus on the things that directly impact the health and safety of their customers.
But there’s one provision in those FDA rules the Health Authority overlooked.
“There was going to be some sort of barrier required, be it a utensil, gloves, wax paper… therefore eliminating the contact of bare hands with food,” said Shelton.
While adopting its new standards, Oregon passed on an FDA recommendation that over 40 other states chose to follow — making the state one of the only places in the country where food handlers don’t have to wear gloves.
That decision blindsided public health agencies and many food handlers, many of whom had considered the provision to be inevitable and common sense. And according to the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association (ORLA), it may have been influenced by a select few in the metro area.
“You have so many independent restaurateurs… for lack of a better term kind of local, celebrity chefs,” said Bill Perry, VP of Government Affairs with ORLA. “They’re the ones that are in the back of the house trying to instill those beliefs.”
Those beliefs, which ORLA supports, are that employees wearing gloves will be more likely to stick their hands in multiple food items without washing. The restaurant association says, in that sense, gloves can actually end up increasing the risk of foodborne illness.
But health inspectors and many local restaurants say that belief isn’t supported by science.
“Some of the independents here in Jackson County, they were also stepping up in anticipation that that was going to become a rule,” said Shelton.
Despite the lack of regulation over gloves, most multi-state restaurant chains choose to wear them anyway. And even without gloves, outbreaks of foodborne illness have remained relatively low.
Last year, Jackson County had just one.
“In most cases these operators, they’re looking to provide a safe product to public obviously to have a successful operation,” said Shleton.
Inspectors say, while the code isn’t perfect, restaurant owners tend to buy in to the belief that precise operations can keep customers safe. They say the fact that a restaurant remains open is a vote of confidence from their agency that consumers can feel safe.
While restaurant scores are not required to be posted in Oregon, Jackson County Environmental Public Health does make theirs available at http://www.co.jackson.or.us/page.asp?navid=712.