HOUSTON -- Our story begins with a simple question we posed at the Original Timmy Chan’s restaurant, in the 5500 block of Lockwood.
“I was wondering if you might let us into your kitchen to see how clean it is?” we asked the manager of the business.
“You can’t go into the kitchen” she answered.
Although she didn’t tell us why we couldn’t, but it may have to do with the 118 Houston Health Department violations the restaurant received over a three-year period. Those included no hot water, food at improper temperature, and food “not safe for human consumption.”
“Ain’t nothing going on here,” the manager said.
But it turns out, there’s also been nothing going on here of late as far as City of Houston health inspections: records show this repeat-violator restaurant was five months past due for its scheduled city review.
In fact, the I-Team found the Lockwood eatery is just one of more than 4,000 that were past due—nearly two-thirds of all restaurants in Houston. After we started asking questions, the City of Houston Health Department suddenly ordered and completed 500 inspections in a week’s time.
“The health department is in violation of their own rules,” said food scientist Dr. Pete Snyder.
That jeopardizes the health of anyone who eats in that restaurant,” Snyder said.
Snyder is a Minnesota-based food safety expert who for decades has trained thousands of restaurants and kitchen employees in proper food handling procedures.
We took him on a tour of some of those past-due restaurants. First, there was the Taqueria Los Reyes, in the 4900 block of McCarty Road. It was four months past due on its city inspection, despite having 195 violations over three years.
I-Team: “Why do you have a history of problems like this?
Manager: “I had some workers they didn’t want to listen, so we fired them.”
During our visit, Snyder did see improvement from its last city inspection and gave the kitchen good marks. However, outside the restaurant was another story, where we found holes in the outside walls.
“Rats can get through holes” explained Snyder.
Next we went to the trendy Midtown section of the city and the upscale sushi restaurant The Fish, in the 300 block of West Gray.
“I haven’t seen the city since I’ve been here”, said manager Van Luong, who said he’d been there more than a year. In fact, the last time the city made an appearance, August 2010, it wrote the restaurant up for not freezing fish as required and having potentially hazardous food stored at the wrong temperature.
I-Team: “Does it surprise you that the city hasn’t been around?”
Luong: “You know, it’s a little surprising, but regardless, we handle stuff just the way we need to.”
And although Snyder found their kitchen to be clean, he says as a rule, not inspecting a sushi restaurant for over a year is a real risk.
“If you give that long leash, people are going to get sloppy” he said.
So what does the Houston Health Department have to say?
“I don’t know that we’ve ever had enough staff,” said Patrick Key, Bureau Chief of Consumer Health Services. “We try to do the best we can with the resources that we have.”
But the I-Team did some number crunching and found that another agency with roughly the same ratio of food inspectors is doing a much better job of not falling behind.
“I think we look for a lot of efficiencies,” explained Michael Schaffer, who oversees food inspections for Harris County.
“Always looking for efficiency, where and when we can,” he said.
Unlike the city of Houston, which again was behind on nearly two thirds of restaurant inspections, Harris County’s past due rate is around 10 percent.
In addition, Schaffer said, “I am actually following up on every single one of those.”
So we laid out the disparity for our food-safety expert
“Obviously we’ve got different sets of eyeballs at the city, than at the county,” Snyder said. “I would give the plus to the county, for doing a better job.”