HOUSTON—The next time you go out to eat, the City of Houston says don’t worry.
“Any restaurant in Houston that’s open for business is a safe place to eat,” said Patrick Key, Bureau Chief of Consumer Health Services.
But when the I-Team inspected city inspections at Houston restaurants, we found a big problem. The city is behind. Way behind.
“They’re not following their own rules, and if they’re not following their own rules, they’re not protecting public health,” said food scientist Dr. Pete Snyder.
Just how often was the city not following its own rules? The I-Team found 4,009 restaurants, 65 percent of all Houston eateries, overdue for a health inspection. And in hundreds of cases, the city was tardy by more than a year.
“Shape up and get their damn inspections fixed,” said Dr. Snyder, who was studying food safety and inspecting kitchens before we put a man on the moon. As the founder and president of Minnesota-based Hospitality Institute of Technology and Management, he has educated thousands of executives, owners, chefs and employees on procedures for producing safe food.
He said delinquent inspections can undermine the entire regulatory process.
“Pretty soon the operator begins to believe that the health department is not real, they’re not going to punish him, and that’s bad,” Snyder said.
There can be bad consequences to an unsanitary kitchen. Musicians Ron and Ramona Pace got a taste of it an all-night diner.
“My heart was pounding,” Ron Pace said.
“Severe diarrhea, severe vomiting,” added Ramona Pace. “I passed out.”
“Scared the hell out of me,” her husband added.
Both said the food poisoning is something they’ll never forget.
“It was the most terrifying night of my life,” Ron Pace said.
So you would think the city would keep a tight leash on eateries, especially with serious violations. But think again.
At Ninfa’s in the 8500 block of the Gulf Freeway, Houston city inspectors closed the restaurant down in September 2010 after finding numerous violations. Those included live roaches, no soap in the kitchen sink, and food not safe for human consumption. The next day management corrected most of the violations, but was still written up for the treatment of roach activity.
It was due for another inspection in six months. But instead, the city waited more than a year.
”You don’t let go of that restaurant until the restaurant has solved the problem,” Dr. Snyder said.
But repeat problems don’t always sound the city’s alarms either. Consider the Triple J’s Smokehouse in the 6700 block of Homestead Road. It had 154 violations over the past three years. Its last inspection, November 2010, turned up equipment not washed, rinsed and sanitized, as well as potentially hazardous foods at unsafe temperatures. For that, the city should have checked up this past January, but has yet to do so.
There’s also KC’s Seafood and Grill in the 400 block of Maxey Road. City records showed it was a year and a half overdue for a health inspection, so we paid a visit with a food safety expert.
“Everything’s been corrected,” said the manager who identified herself as Debbie.
She told us everything was OK after a city inspector had finally shown up a few weeks before we did. But Dr. Snyder still found problems, from cooked food sitting out at room temperature, to problems with the kitchen sink.
“There’s no soap, there’s no paper towels, you couldn’t possibly use the hand sink to wash your hands in,” Dr. Snyder said, adding that hand washing is critical.
“That’s how half of the food borne illness occurs,” Dr. Snyder said.
So the I-Team had some questions for that city bureau chief who said you should feel confident every Houston restaurant is a safe place to eat.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had enough staff,” said Patrick Key.
Key said the city just can’t keep up with its two requirements—annual inspections on all food permit establishments, as well as risk-based inspections on eateries with poor previous inspection scores.
But when the I-Team began digging, Key suddenly ordered 500 inspections at past due eateries. He said those were all done over the course of a week.
”90 percent of them got a score of one or two which are good scores,” Key said.
But for Dr. Snyder, good may not be good enough. Consider the Pho Saigon restaurant in the 2500 Block of Gessner, one of the 500 eateries the city had scrambled to inspect.
“They have bad cooling practices, they have bad hot holding practices, these are things that really make people sick,” said Dr. Snyder.
We talked to the owner Tommy Ho.
I-Team: “Is it safe to say you could do a better job?”
Ho: “Yes, for sure.”
That brings us back to Key and all the other overdue eateries the city still hasn’t visited.
I-Team: “How do those fall through the cracks?”
Key: “Of course the ones that you gave me, I’ve given to the supervisors to investigate just that.”
But until then, Key conceded “those restaurants could be doing something that’s dangerous to public health, could be making people sick.”
But Dr. Snyder said the city should be saying this:
“We can’t have out-of-date facilities who are supposed to be inspected. We will have none of those anymore,” he said.
Meanwhile, management at the Triple J’s Smokehouse said many of the violations were non-critical types and were corrected on site.
“It’s not as bad as it sounds,” said Jarrod Scales.
As for Ninfa’s, the Gulf Freeway restaurant received a handful of non-critical violations on its most recent inspection last month. Additionally, Dr. Snyder gave the kitchen good marks during his tour of the restaurant.