City health department falls short on restaurant inspections

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AUSTIN (KXAN) – Roaches, rodents, employees not washing hands, food stored at unsafe temperatures or in an unsafe manner are just some of the critical violations food inspectors are supposed to look for and, if found, force restaurants to fix. But a KXAN investigation uncovered the Austin – Travis County Health and Human Services Department isn’t keeping up with the number of restaurants it’s required to check, putting you at more risk of getting sick when you eat out.

Health inspectors agree that more frequent inspections help ensure clean, safe restaurants. That’s why the Austin – Travis County Health Department promises on its website to conduct health inspections at all food service establishments twice a year. That’s also the standard set in the Texas Food Establishment Rules. But our investigation shows that’s not happening.

Guero’s Taco bar on South Congress Avenue has been serving more than 1,000 people a day since 1986. To keep the place clean and the food safe for customers, management doesn’t wait for health department inspectors to show up.

“Our main philosophy is: Do no harm to those people. Make sure they leave here healthy and happy,” says Guero’s owner Rob Lippencott. “We have weekly inspections ourselves that no one knows when they’re happening. Sometime during the week, our managers will come through and inspect.”

City health inspectors only visited Guero’s once in 2014, but it scored a perfect 100 on its October inspection and on its prior inspection in 2013. But not all restaurants are as proactive, which is why health inspections are crucial to making sure your meal is safe.

“We look at the food, how it’s handled by the employees, making sure they wash their hands properly, when they need to wash their hands, looking at the temperatures of food,” explained Austin-Travis County Health Inspector Michael Bland.

During our investigation, we analyzed Austin – Travis County Health Department’s inspection data and found 28 percent of the 4,200 permitted food service establishments in Austin and Travis County received only one inspection in 2014. Dozens have gone longer than a year.

Vince Young Steakhouse and Bob’s Steak and Chop House downtown are among those that have gone the longest, last being inspected in May and June 2013. Neither failed their inspections, but the City’s Health Inspection Division director acknowledges that’s too much time between inspections.

“By your own standard, you’re supposed to inspect twice a year, but that’s not happening,” said KXAN Investigator Brian Collister in an interview with Vince Delisi, who helps run the inspection division of the Austin-Travis County Health and Human Services Department.

“That’s correct,” Delisi responded.

“Doesn’t that put the public at risk?” asked Collister.

“Well, I think if we’re not able to inspect the establishments as often as we need to, then there is some increased risk to the public certainly,’” Delisi said.

Delisi says the problem is as Austin’s population grew 25 percent over the past decade, the number of restaurant permits has also grew substantially, yet his department has been operating with only 20 inspectors until last fall when another three were added.

“Because we haven’t had the resources to conduct two inspections per year on each establishment,” Delisi said, “We have been prioritizing our inspections on higher risk establishments.”

But that’s not what KXAN’s investigation found.

The “high risk” places Delisi refers to are those that the Center for Disease Control and the Texas Department of Health and Human Services define as having an “extensive handling of raw ingredients” and where “preparation processes include the cooking, cooling and reheating of potentially hazardous foods,” and “food processes include advanced preparation for next day service.”

Vince Young Steakhouse and Bob’s Steak and Chophouse fall within those descriptions. After our interview with Delisi, inspectors finally returned to Vince Young and Bob’s in January, more than a year and a half later. Both passed.

Another is one of Austin hottest new restaurants, Qui on Sixth, which opened June of 2013 but still hasn’t had an inspection since opening its doors.

In fact, health department inspection data reviewed by KXAN show through early December of 2014, 340 restaurants, bars, and other food service establishments permitted in the last 2 years have not been inspected since opening. More than 40 of those have now recently been inspected.

When inspectors do show up and find enough violations for a restaurant to fail an inspection, they’re supposed to follow up quickly to make sure violations were fixed.

“We’ve seen some restaurants go more than 30 days without a follow up inspection after failing an inspection. Why would that happen?” Collister asked Delisi. “They should have an inspection after ten business days,” he responded.

But when Hunan Lion on South Lamar Blvd failed an inspection last October, it wasn’t re-inspected until three months later in January after we asked Delisi about it. He says the return visit wasn’t reassigned for its follow up. When an inspector finally dropped by on January 20, Hunan Lion failed again.

Delisi agrees that fewer, less frequent inspections can equate to dirty restaurants.

“Because we’re not in these establishments insuring compliance, there is an increased risk,” Delisi admitted. “However, because we have a lot of experience in this department doing food safety, we see where the problems are. We’re doing our best to work towards bringing all of these places into compliance,” he said.

Delisi says the department has not had funding to hire more inspectors. But, the city council recently approved the addition of six more and Delisi hopes the extra staff will help his department get to each food establishment twice by the end of this year.

We’ll check back then to make sure that happens.

These establishments failed an inspection between Jan. 1 and early Dec. 2014. They may have passed a subsequent inspection. You can find their average score and full inspection reports by searching below.

Search below for details of all Austin food service establishment inspections over the last 3 years through early December 2014 and see the full inspection reports for the restaurants with the lowest average inspection scores and those that failed in 2014.

Source: Data from Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department as of Dec. 12, 2015 compiled by KXAN.

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