February 24, 2004

Student health inspector discusses closings

Carlos Villarreal spent the last three summers working as a food inspector for Kankakee County, which is south of Chicago. A fourth-year economics concentrator in the College, Villarreal spoke with the Maroon about health inspections, the recent closing of B-J, and what to take a second look at while visiting your favorite grease trap.

Isaac Wolf: Is it difficult to fail an inspection?

Carlos Villarreal: There's a difference between failing and being shut down. You can fail with a large number of problems and stay open. But you don't need to fail an inspection to be shut down. If there exists a serious health threat, an establishment can be closed immediately.

IW: What are those serious threats?

CV: What's really dangerous is food out of acceptable temperature ranges. Those weren't the issues here [at B-J].  I frequently encountered temperature problems. Hot foods must be kept hot and cold foods must be kept cold at all times. It is also important to pay attention to food contact surfaces. Counters, cutting boards, knives—how clean are these surfaces? All these small details quickly add up to something bigger.

IW: What have you heard about B-J?

CV: I think B-J is a safe place to eat. They clearly encountered some imminent health threat and the issue was addressed. Regardless, I will continue eating there. I think the University does a particularly good job of keeping the dining halls and kitchens clean. They are certainly cleaner than most Hyde Park establishments. However, the cleanliness is almost at the expense of tastiness. Eating on campus pretty much guarantees a safe product.

IW: And off campus?

CV: Look closely at your plates and your silverware. For example, small specks on silverware are common but acceptable. All silverware must be air-dried and not wiped down with a towel, so the only way to really get rid of those little specks would be if an air fan were used. However, if you see grease or particles of food on your dishes, that indicates an incomplete wash cycle and they should be exchanged.  More importantly, if any temperature-dependent food (such as meat or dairy products) are served at room temperature, you send it right back.

IW: Are there any other tell-tale signs?

CV: Most of the places with clean kitchens have clean bathrooms. If they care enough to clean the bathrooms, you're usually in good shape. Besides that, it's very important to be aware of how your food is prepared and held—especially at serve-yourself buffets. They seem to be more prone to temperature issues. If your food is just sitting out and waiting in a big dish, watch out!

IW: How much does a health closing impact a restaurant's business? Do you think B-J is in danger of losing much business?

CV: All the students know that this dining hall is closed for health concerns, but in my county, businesses can say whatever they want. They've been pretty tough here in Hyde Park recently so I think people will understand. I would eat at B-J again.

IW: Even after the rodent problem came to light?

RV: It's almost impossible to keep out rodents and cockroaches. They've adapted to find food in urban environments. We can certainly put forth our best effort to protect against them, but B-J is a very old building. We've even had problems in new buildings—like Palevsky—with mice. It's always going to be an issue with these pests. It's unavoidable. As long as the food is disposed of properly, we're in good shape.