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Olmsted approach to inspections emphasizes illness prevention

By Jeff Hansel

jhansel@postbulletin.com

A clean restaurant isn’t necessarily a safe restaurant.

That’s why health inspectors in Rochester don’t do surprise restaurant inspections anymore.

Bill Kass, environmental health specialist with Olmsted County Public Health, said Rochester and Olmsted County have a statewide reputation for restaurant food safety.

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Kass is a former school teacher with a degree in psychology, in addition to his experience as a sanitarian. Kass said he moved to Rochester from his job as a restaurant inspector in Duluth specifically to learn Olmsted County’s method of consultative, pre-announced inspections.

"I came because of the format that they were using," he said.

Kass looks for safety measures that help customers avoid illness.

Vietnamese restaurants in Rochester, for example, generally demonstrate safe food production, Kass said.

"They cook everything that day, nice and hot — boiling hot — and what’s left they throw out," he said. "By cooking the food, serving it immediately, they don’t have to worry about cooling or hot-holding."

With restaurants in general that serve meats like chicken and beef, Kass said, "we assume that stuff’s coming in contaminated, and we take the next step. When we review the restaurant, we look at the main risk factors that are statistically associated with outbreaks."

Inspectors might mention a crack in the tile floor, but they’re much more concerned about preventing cross contamination and workers touching food when they’re sick (or being at the restaurant at all when sick).

"People don’t get sick from dirty restaurants. People get sick form dirty hands. People get sick from employee illness. People get sick from food that’s not been cooled quickly enough. People get sick from food that’s been left out too long," Kass said.

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Rochester is "steps beyond" with food safety, "compared with other places that I’ve been," he said.

Part of the reason? Public health works collaboratively with restaurants, rather than undertaking surprise inspections.

"I think that our approach has resulted in a huge level of trust between us," Kass said. "They want us, they call us. We’ve actually had restaurants call and say, ‘Aren’t you due to come in yet?’ They anticipate, enjoy and want us to be there."

Does Kass eat out in Rochester?

Of course he does.

"I picked up some Chinese today. Every time I’ve gone in there, their food safety procedures are very good," he said.

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