Food safety violations in Southwest Colorado spike

Friday, Sept. 15, 2017 4:42 PM
Jaime Lariz’s restaurant, San Marcos Mexican Restaurant on U.S. Highway 160 west, was one of more than 30 restaurants recently inspected by San Juan Basin Health Department. The department has added more inspectors to its staff to match the number of restaurants in La Plata, Archuleta and San Juan counties.

Your favorite restaurant is now under more intense scrutiny from the local health department as an increase in inspectors has resulted in an eye-popping number of food safety violations for the month of August.

On average, food inspectors with San Juan Basin Public Health conduct anywhere from 20 to 30 inspections on local food establishments each month throughout Archuleta, La Plata and San Juan counties.

In months past, those inspections would typically result in a handful of infractions. Data reviewed from February to July 2017 found an average of 20 violations to food safety regulations a month.

However, in August, a total of 34 inspections resulted in 129 written citations.

“We’re definitely conducting very thorough inspections,” said Claire Macpherson, consumer protection projects manager for San Juan Basin Public Health. “We hope this is not the new norm. We want to reduce the number of critical violations.”

Violations can range from anything from improper food storage, employees being observed not washing hands, inadequate pest control methods to the risk of cross-food contamination of raw to ready-to-eat food.

Macpherson said a number of factors account for the uptick in violations.

For the past year-and-a-half, the health department has beefed up its inspections department to match the number of restaurants in the three-county coverage areas, Macpherson said.

The health department has 462 businesses with licenses that it is responsible for checking for food safety violations, with the majority (392) located in La Plata County.

Previously, the health department had only one full-time inspector. But over the past year, it has increased that number to three inspectors and started on an extensive training program, Macpherson said.

Also, one of the health department’s inspectors was just finishing up the Federal Drug Administration’s standardizing process, which requires an inspector to conduct 100 inspections in 18 months. There also exists the plain fact that restaurants just had more violations at the time of inspection.

“While there was an unusually high number of violations, there is nothing in particular we can point to,” said Claire Ninde, a spokeswoman for San Juan Basin Public health.

Food inspectors visit restaurants at random to enforce regulations set at the state and federal levels. If violations are found, the restaurant is usually given 10 days or so to fix the issue before the health department returns for a follow-up review. No fines are associated with violations – money is instead asked to be allocated to fixing the problem, Macpherson said.

But if an issue is not fixed or there is an imminent health hazard, the health department can shut the place down.

“Restaurants are very dynamic places that change minute to minute, so an inspection is a snapshot in time,” Macpherson said. “One inspection does not represent that establishment as a whole. That’s why we go back.”

Several local restaurants that were recently inspected did not return calls from The Durango Herald to comment for this story. The restaurant that received the most violations (16) was San Marcos Mexican Restaurant on U.S. Highway 160 West, attached to the Best Western hotel.

Owner Jaime Lariz, who previously ran No Way Jose, said most of his problems revolved around the restaurant’s refrigerator. Food safety code says food must be kept below 41 degrees, and he quickly complied.

“Everything’s pretty much fixed or they wouldn’t let me open,” Lariz said.

Lynn Kitch, owner of Homeslice Pizza, said another set of eyes inspecting the kitchen is helpful. Homeslice’s location on East College Drive was issued eight citations.

“You plan to address whatever it is they find ... and put an action in place,” Kitch said. “Surely you don’t want to make anyone sick. That’s the last thing any restaurateur wants.”

Macpherson said that is the health department’s goal: to help restaurants come into compliance with state and federal food regulations, thereby ensuring the safest and most healthful practices for consumers.

“I fully believe that every retail food establishment we visit wants to keep people healthy and safe,” she said. “When we can work together, that’s when we can ... serve our community better.”