Health inspector Al Burns keeps Vermont restaurants from making you sick
Bleeding chefs. Plywood cutting boards. Rats in the kitchen. Al Burns has seen it all in 37 years as a Vermont restaurant inspector. Along with the eight "sanitarians" he supervises at the Department of Health, the state's top food enforcer keeps tabs on 5000 commercial kitchens from Newport to Bennington, plus every hospital, school and street vendor in the state. Members of this food-safety task force never make a reservation. They drop in unannounced about once a year, in search of mouse droppings, flour mites, contaminated counters, dirty hands and other signs of unsanitary conditions that could threaten public health. In addition, every citizen complaint - even anonymous ones - initiates a separate investigation.
In 2006 alone, Burns and company conducted more than 9000 inspections of Vermont food-serving establishments. "Someday," the 75-year-old says with a chuckle, "I'm going to write a book. Nobody will ever eat again, and everyone will want to kill me."
Who'd read such an exposé? Local restaurateurs. Foodies. Culinary students. Clean freaks. People who can't resist scouring the restaurant report cards published monthly in The Burlington Free Press. The local daily assembles the sanitation scores of Chittenden County restaurants, including all of their numeric deductions in 13 "critical" categories that require on-the-spot remediation. The Freeps gets the info from the health department's website, which offers more narrative detail. It's good reading - unless, of course, your restaurant fails to make the grade. Two scenarios can lead to a shut-down: The first is a score of less than 70 points; the second, a proprietor's inability or refusal to correct a critical violation.
Burns says the public scoring system is a huge motivator for restaurants: "There's always someone who wants us to come back out and do an inspection the next day so they'll have a better score."
That could explain the Sheraton Hotel and Conference Center's willingness to submit to its second inspection since January. The report on the health department's website indicates that the establishment lost a total of 10 points for "critical" violations two months ago: five points for allowing "personnel with infectious and communicable diseases" on the job and another five for failing to "wash hands and use good hygienic practices." One of the biggest kitchens in Vermont scored a total of 85 out of 100.
Today's inspection is different. It's prearranged, because Burns is accompanied by a journalist: The health department won't permit any other arrangement when a member of the media is present. The Sheraton should be able to improve its score - at the very least, it can give any sniffling workers the day off.
"If you know I'm coming, and you've got critical items, there's something wrong with you," Burns warns. Speaking with a light Vermont accent, he's mild-mannered and reserved but also direct with an air of incorruptibility - in short, perfectly tempered to deal with the occasional hot-headed chef.
This inspection may be "staged," but Burns won't go easy on the Sheraton, which can turn out up to 3000 meals a day. Flashlight in hand, he heads right for the "line," where all the high-stress cooking happens. A handful of French fries lies on the floor, presumably from today's lunch. But Burns is more interested in what lies behind the shiny stainless counters and well-seasoned grills. He illuminates the greasy darkness in search of animal signs - "the type of thing that might be an indication of a bigger problem" - and uses one of four different thermometers to probe the guacamole, sour cream and dressings in the sandwich refrigerator. So far, so cool.
Sous-chef Ed LaDue accompanies Burns as he makes the rounds; ultimately, he'll have to sign the inspector's report. LaDue is right there when Burns pulls a dirty drip tray from under one of the grills. Ditto for the caulking compound detaching from one of the overhead ventilation hoods. "That's going to fall into somebody's soup," Burns says, indicating the long strips of brown rubber hanging precariously above, "and I'll be back out inspecting." He makes a note on a one-sheet form attached to his clipboard.
The dishwashing area gets similar scrutiny. Burns sends a different thermometer - "at dish level" - through the machine to make sure the water is hot enough: It's supposed to be at least 170 degrees. First time through, the dial reads 115. On the second pass, it reaches the requisite 171.3, and Burns moves on to a floor-to-ceiling shelf used for storing silverware. There are utensils on flat racks, in plastic tubs and standing on end in containers. But within their segregated areas - knives, spoons, forks - they're all mixed up, facing opposite directions. Burns explains the problem: "Nobody can handle them without touching the eating surface." That's another mark on the clipboard.
Burns asks LaDue if he's had a "ServSafe" course - a daylong seminar on proper food handling offered by the National Restaurant Association. LaDue has, so the inspector spares him a five-question quiz. Burns teaches a cheaper version of the same course through the Vermont Department of Health. And he's particularly qualified to stand at the front of the classroom. Burns earned a degree in public health at the University of Denver while he was serving in the Air Force. Courses in entomology, parasitology, bacteriology, anatomy, physiology, water sanitation, sewage disposal and industrial hygiene prepared him to inspect military barracks and mess halls.
"In the service they used to call us preventative-medicine specialists," Burns explains. "The whole idea there was we were keeping people from being sick."
Burns has also spent time on the other end of the spatula. After the Air Force, he worked for a while at Al's French Frys - no relation - and later opened a seasonal snack bar between Barton and Orleans. The B 'n' W is still operational.
In short, Burns has been around long enough to understand how bugs like staphylococcus and legionella - the source of Legionnaires' disease- get into the food supply, and he has some theories about the recent spike in nationwide food-contamination cases. Increasingly virulent bacteria, for one.
In a lighthearted reference to the latest salmonella outbreak, Burns jokes with Banquet Manager Jim Karpinski. "You have any Peter Pan peanut butter?"
"I don't know. I could check," Karpinski offers earnestly, mistaking the inspector's sense of humor for regulatory rigor.
"Have you checked?" Burns presses, sounding more serious now.
"What kind of peanut butter do we have?" Karpinski asks LaDue nervously. "I don't think it's Peter Pan."
"Skippy," LaDue replies.
"Are we safe with Skippy?" Karpinski asks Burns.
"For right now, as far as I know, you are. Maybe tomorrow it will be another story."
A healthy tension has always existed between food producers and the "state." The regulatory relationship dates back to at least 1202, when King John of England outlawed the adulteration of bread. The U.S. colonies had some food-related statutes, too, but it wasn't until 1906 that Congress passed the original Meat Inspection and Food and Drug acts. That occurred in the wake of Upton Sinclair's slaughterhouse exposé The Jungle. Public outcry over the novel helped create a confluence of public-health concerns that overpowered the forces of commerce and competition.
The Jungle makes a compelling case for government oversight, reminding readers that tainted food can be as dangerous as faulty firearms or bad medicine. Burns makes that case, too, though he knows food vendors and restaurateurs aren't exactly overjoyed to see him show up wearing his green Department of Health cap and a fanny pack full of thermometers. "We're not trying to put people out of business; we're trying to make them have safe food for the public," he explains. "By the same token, we're protecting the restaurant, too, in a way, if you stop to think about it. When it comes down to liability, if they make someone sick, they're the one who's going to get zapped."
The FDA began administering food-service "sanitation programs" in 1969 - the same year Burns started working for the health department as a restaurant inspector. While he was "in the field," covering the Northeast Kingdom, Burns busted one restaurant that had a dirty plywood cutting board on the floor. In Lyndonville, he saw rats. When the town closed a dump on one side of the burg and opened a landfill on the other, "The rodents all went through town," he recalls. "They were in the restaurants and everywhere."
Burns also went to two Grateful Dead concerts and one Phish show. In a professional capacity, of course. "We had to license all the booths and inspect them all . . . We make them have hand-wash facilities on board," he says.
The Sheraton has two hand sinks in the kitchen. Burns uses them both during the course of his inspection. He scrubs like a surgeon, lathering for at least 20 seconds. "It's a long time, but that's what's in our regs," says Burns, noting that the industry standard for food-service workers is more rigorous than that for hospital personnel. "I think it was '60 Minutes' that reported 62 percent of people in America don't wash their hands after they go to the bathroom," Burns says. "My point is that, of the other 38 percent, only about 10 percent wash them effectively."
Burns has multiple motives for the personal hygiene demo. He knows it's one of the single biggest preventable threats to food safety, and points out that another batch of cantaloupe was recalled last week as a result of bacteria from poopy hands. "I want the kitchen staff to see that I do wash my hands - that's number one. And number two, I want to check the temperature of the water . . . If it ain't where it should be, they're going to hear about it."
Burns later discovers there's no hot water in the employee men's room.
What else is the Sheraton going to hear about after two hours of checking walk-ins, trash compactors, pantries, sewer pipes and pans of potatoes? The protective gloves the cooks are wearing should be plastic or vinyl, not the latex variety they have currently. Enough people are allergic, Burns says, that in 2003 the FDA started advising against using latex gloves.
The metal device lying on top of the ice machine, a "notorious" source of bacteria, should be suspended, handle up, on - but not touching - the adjacent wall.
In the baking area, Burns observes that the kitchen's only microwave, which is used to heat up desserts, is spattered inside. And there's a little spooge underneath the housing on one of the Kitchenaid mixers. The Sheraton's final grade: 89 - four points higher than the previous score.
The general manager is disappointed. "Our personal goal here is always 90 or better," says Robert Burnetti.
Burns reassures him, "You ain't off very much."
The Sheraton higher-ups receive the information in the educational spirit in which it was intended. LaDue volunteers, "It's good for me - from a professional standpoint - to have this, to have somebody who goes through to inspect every little detail."
But not every restaurateur is so agreeable. Burns says some get so angry they refuse to sign the form. "They look at us as a policeman rather than a person to help them," he laments. "We try really hard to work with them all the time, to get things done peaceably."
Language problems come up occasionally - especially at Chinese restaurants, which are among the lowest-scoring eateries in Vermont. When the proprietors can't understand him, "I go around and point at things," Burns says. In one case, a complaint came in alleging that one of the cooks was bleeding all over the work table. "I inspected him, and he did have a cut on his arm; I could see that it had been dripping," Burns recalls. "I actually pulled a glove out, showed it to him, and told him to put it on."
Band-Aids? Not without a glove or finger cot. "There's no better way to spread a staph infection," Burns notes. "Plus, we've had complaints from people finding them in food."
Slip-ups in the kitchen come in all varieties, from hygienic lapses to contaminated equipment. And corrections can be costly, especially in the water and sewer departments. Getting bad news from Burns, especially when you're operating on a paper-thin profit margin, can bring out the worst in people. In some parts of the state, restaurant owners let each other know by phone when an inspector is in the area.
There's also a lot of "joking" about bribery, Burns concedes. Years ago, when he was in the field, some Vermont restaurant owners who hailed from New Jersey followed Burns out to the car and asked him the price of the inspection. "I told them in Vermont there was no fee, and they got their license and that was it. I don't know . . . if they were trying to bribe me."
Just because it happens in New York City, "the world has this concept that every place is like that," Burns continues. "That really aggravates my people. They'll speak up and tell the person. I just tell them they don't have enough money to bribe me. My price would be umpteen billion dollars, and then I'd quit the next day. So they wouldn't get anything for the money."
Burns is a dedicated public servant. He also practices what he preaches - at home. He and his wife keep a clean kitchen in South Burlington, regularly sanitize the sink and wash every cantaloupe they consume in a weak chlorine solution. Although he never eats sushi and likes his beef well done, Burns does eat out often. He says he doesn't avoid many local restaurants, even if their scores aren't stellar.
Just don't seat him at a table by the kitchen.
To check the most recent restaurant inspection scores, visit http://healthvermont.gov/apps/restaurant_scores/RestaurantScores.aspx 
PASS OR FAIL?
The Vermont Department of Health's inspection is based on a 44-item checklist. Thirteen of these items are considered "critical" and address areas where there is a high likelihood of illness if left uncorrected. Appropriately, these critical items are weighed heavier in our analysis. The remaining 31 "non-critical" items measure construction and overall cleanliness. Totaled, all 44 checklist items add up to a perfect score of 100.
*The food is in good condition, unadulterated and safe for human consumption.
*Potentially hazardous food is stored, prepared, displayed, served and transported according to specified time and temperature requirements.
*Cross-contamination is prevented.
*Unwrapped, potentially hazardous food has not been (is not?) returned or reused.
*Personnel with infections or communicable diseases are restricted from handling food or excluded from work.
*Personnel wash hands and use good hygienic practices, including removing jewelry and trimming nails.
*Food equipment and utensils are properly sanitized.
*Hot and cold water is from a safe and approved source.
*Sewage and waste disposal is approved and satisfactory.
*Plumbing is installed to prevent back siphonage or backflow. There is no direct connection between sewage and the drains involved in food preparation, or equipment and utensil washing.
*Adequate, convenient and properly maintained toilet and handwashing facilities are available.
*Insects, rodents and other animals are kept out of the restaurant by screens or self-closing doors.
*Necessary toxic items are properly stored, separated, labeled and used. NON-critical items
*Premises are well maintained and free of unnecessary items.
*Living and sleeping quarters and unrelated activities are separate from food preparation areas.
*Clean and soiled linens are properly stored and cleaned.
*The food is properly stored and if required, a consumer advisory is posted.
*Proper equipment is used to maintain product temperature, thermometers are available, accurate and within view.
*Hazardous food is thawed properly.
*Food is protected during storage, preparation, display, service and transportation.
*Gloves or utensils are used to minimize handling of food and ice.
*Food and ice dispensing utensils and equipment are properly cleaned and stored.
*Personnel wear clean clothing, uniforms, aprons and hair restraints.
*Food contact surfaces are properly designed, constructed, cleaned and maintained.
*Non-food contact surfaces are properly designed, constructed, cleaned and maintained.
*Dishwashing facilities are properly designed, constructed, maintained, installed and located.
*Accurate thermometers, chemical test kits and pressure gauges are provided.
*Single service articles are properly stored, dispensed and handled.
*Single service items are not re-used.
*Dishes are pre-flushed, scraped and soaked.
*Wash and rinse water is clean and at the proper temperature.
*Wiping cloths are clean, stored in sanitizing solution and used properly.
*Food contact surfaces of equipment and utensils are clean.
*Non-food contact surfaces of equipment and utensils are clean and free of contaminants.
*Clean equipment and utensils are properly stored and handled.
*Plumbing fixtures are properly installed, constructed and maintained.
*Restrooms are clean, properly maintained, with self-closing doors and hand wash soap and towels or air dryers provided.
*Rubbish containers are covered, properly located and clean.
*Outside garbage disposal areas are enclosed and clean.
*Floors are properly constructed, in good repair, and clean.
*Walls and ceilings are properly constructed, in good repair, and clean.
*Adequate lighting with proper shielding is provided.
*Proper ventilation exists.
*Dressing rooms are provided and clean.