Health and Safety in the Portland Restaurant Scene

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In June, – this month, for those of you too lazy to refer to your calendar – the city of Portland began posting health inspection reports online for the public to see. This change came after a number of changes in the health inspection code. Anyone who follows the local restaurant scene probably suspected changes were needed after three waterfront businesses were shut down last year due to rat infestation. The three businesses – the Porthole, Comedy Connection, and Harbor’s Edge Banquet Hall shared a kitchen and food license. All three were reopened within a few days after a re-inspection. The Comedy Connection closed for good shortly after, and while probably for a variety of reasons, it’s safe to say that the initial shut-down was at least partly to blame.

The changes made by the city have made them more in line with state health code, modernizing and streamlining the city code. There are now penalties for failing inspection all the way up to shut-down for multiple consecutive failures. Additionally, they are increasing the number of health inspectors from one to three. With a city that has hundreds of restaurants in need of inspection every two years, it only makes sense to have more than one inspector. Add in the need to reevaluate failing establishments to make sure they’ve corrected their issues, and we’re talking about way more work than one person can handle. In a city with a major restaurant scene and a reliance on tourism, this is a critical change to assure restaurant-goers they can have faith in Portland eateries.

It’s important to note that a health inspection failure isn’t necessarily a sign of a bad restaurant, but more of a wake-up call to correct issues that could potentially cause problems. You might also consider that a failure and then a subsequent pass of an inspection shows that the restaurant actually cares about making it right while a restaurant that hasn’t been inspected recently could have more violations without anyone knowing it. A restaurant with multiple consecutive failures would definitely be cause for alarm to me and shows a lack of concern for the customer and their safety.

Years ago, I worked in the food industry and was around for health inspections which we never failed to my knowledge. Nor did we work exceptionally hard to pass. We just completed nightly cleanings and made sure to clean everything else semi-regularly. Refrigerators, shelves, fan filters, etc. got cleaned on slow afternoons. Food safety was never specifically addressed verbally, but management led by example and we followed their lead. Health inspections are easily passed, but it takes a culture of following the rules and education.

Some people may not think food safety is a serious issue, but it is. Lack of food safety, such as cross contamination, poor sanitation practices, and improper food temperatures can cause sickness – and in cases of someone with a weakened immune system – even death. The seriousness of this is displayed in the list of reports on the City of Portland website where a complaint was filed because someone became sick after a meal and then an inspection immediately following resulted in a failure. While it’s sometimes hard to know for sure why someone became sick, it raises a red flag, particularly if multiple people became sick after eating the same food. At the same time, you should also know that just because a complaint was filed doesn’t mean it was legitimate.

So what should you make of all this? Am I trying to say that you shouldn’t go out to eat in Portland? Not at all. In fact, you can feel more confident now that someone is actually checking to make sure you’re going to be safe. It’s certainly not a guarantee, but you can also do a little research on your own before you choose a place to eat. Did that restaurant pass the last health inspection they had? If they failed did they pass the follow-up? Have they been inspected at all recently? You can now go out armed with more information. I know I’ll be checking before I go to eat.

Peterpeterportlandeater will continue to eat at Portland’s fine and not-so-fine establishments. The city is working hard to improve the way they monitor restaurants. Now you can see for yourself which ones are concerned about what their customers are eating and which ones have raw beef blood dripping in your Caesar’s Salad. I want to visit ones that care about what their patrons are eating. Anyway, isn’t that really their job in the first place?

Here is the link to the health inspection reports: http://www.portlandmaine.gov/hhs/foodsafetyinspect.asp

Stay hungry.

Feel free to email me at peterpeterportlandeater@yahoo.com with any thoughts, suggestions, criticisms, or otherwise helpful info or feel free to post your thoughts below.

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