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Live roaches seen in food prep area….Excessive amount of mice droppings seen throughout food prep area and in walk-in box….Evidence of a severe rodent infestation” read highlights of inspector Jacqueline R. Coleman’s recent report on Cafe Lautrec, a popular Adams Morgan restaurant.
Sound appetizing? The D.C. food cops didn’t think so either, and on Sept. 20 the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) closed Cafe Lautrec for a day. On Oct. 1, the restaurant paid a heavier price: The Washington Post listed the closing in its Sunday chart of food establishments shuttered for serious health violations.
But if you’re a restaurantgoer, Cafe Lautrec ranks as the least of your worries. Lautrec was cleaned up in 24 hours because it was caught. Other D.C. eateries are undoubtedly harboring more mice, more roaches, and more unsanitary conditions. But D.C. health inspectors, who are charged with ensuring restaurant safety and sanitation, aren’t shutting down filthy places.
In recent years, the District had been shutting down an average of seven restaurants a month. Ten closings in 30 days was commonplace. But in a city where health inspectors have found live rats, maggots, and birds in kitchens and food storage areas, not a single restaurant has been shut so far in October. In a city where cooks are frequently seen preparing meals with unwashed hands and without required hair restraints, Cafe Lautrec was the only restaurant shut during September. In a city where raw sewage is commonly found clogging kitchen sinks, City Wings on U Street NW was the only restaurant boarded by D.C. health police in August.
It’s no secret why closings have gotten rare: The city’s budget deficit has created a food cop deficit.
“We need more inspectors,” says Rich Siegel, program manager of DCRA’s business-inspection division. Attrition has reduced the already understaffed food inspection force by 30 percent since last year. DCRA has lost five of its 15-member team to retirement and employee buyouts, and Siegel has not been allowed to fill the empty slots. According to the unwritten industry guidelines, the District should employ 20 inspectors and four supervisors. The food cops are also suffering from a shortage of computers. DCRA keeps inspection records manually—there is no centralized database of violations—which makes tracking offenders a tedious task.
The reduction in inspections and restaurant closings is “not intentional,” Siegel says. “The government is really struggling.”
For Siegel’s skeleton crew, ensuring the safety and cleanliness of more than 5,000 establishments has become a rather tall order. Besides checking up on the District’s 2,000-plus restaurants, the DCRA inspectors are saddled with monitoring the District’s grocery stores, hair salons, barber shops, and swimming pools, as well as food festivals such as Adams Morgan Day or Taste of D.C. The Million Man March alone brought 500 vendors to the city—all of which had to be OK’d by the food cops.
Under D.C. law, DCRA inspectors must make four unannounced visits to every one of the establishments DCRA oversees—a minimum of 20,000 inspections per year. The actual number of inspections expected this year is closer to 8,500, Siegel reports, and many businesses will be inspected only once. DCRA’s rating system resembles a high-school grade curve. All restaurants start with 100 points and are downgraded for deficiencies. A score of 86 to 100 passes; 69 or below fails. A score between 70 and 85 garners a warning to fix current problems and a later reinspection. For example, Cafe Lautrec scored 48 on its Sept. 20 inspection and 88 on reinspection the next day.
In the meantime, restaurants don’t have to worry much about dirty counters or crawling vermin. As Siegel and his colleagues shut fewer restaurants, the threat of being named in the Post recedes.
“There is the fear of losing our deterrent,” Siegel says. “Nobody wants to end up in the Washington Post.”
This publicity is DCRA’s only real weapon. Although the agency has the authority to shut down a restaurant for good, its watchdogs have not closed any restaurants permanently for a decade. “Putting restaurants out of business is not our job. Keeping them in business is our job,” Siegel says.
The shrinking inspection staff is trying to keep pace by becoming more “strategic” in its work, Siegel says. As random inspections decline, DCRA is hoping customers and employees will help it find sloppy restaurateurs. DCRA receives about 700 complaints a year. It inspected Cafe Lautrec, for example, after a former employee tipped the city off that he’d seen mice eating cheese that was later served to diners.
Siegel may be the only city employee who wants District residents to contact him. “If you think you’ve been sick, call us. We’d like to know about it,” he says.
No one is sure what impact, if any, the dearth of inspections is having on public health. According to Dr. Martin Levy, chief of the D.C. Public Health Commission’s Bureau of Epidemiology and Disease Control, there are about four documented outbreaks of food-related illness every year. In the past month or so, Levy says, the District has been struck by two such outbreaks, both of salmonella. In one case, half-a-dozen diners at a D.C. restaurant contracted the bacteria from an undetermined source—though chicken was the leading suspect. In the other, about 40 patrons of another restaurant were struck with salmonella after eating from the same batch of improperly cooked chicken.
(Ironically, Levy says, a restaurant where customers have gotten sick is probably your best bet for untainted food: “It’s the safest place to go for a while.”)
But Levy and Siegel do not know whether the food-borne illnesses bear any relationship to the decrease in inspections. There is little correlation between dirty restaurants and outbreaks of food poisoning, says Siegel. Illnesses are usually caused by mistakes in food handling—such as improper food storage or low cooking temperatures. A dirty kitchen may increase the risk of an outbreak, he says, but probably won’t cause one. “Food-borne illnesses [can] happen in impeccably clean restaurants,” he notes.