CINCINNATI -- You might think of it as the restaurant industry’s version of the prison documentary, “Scared Straight!”
On the first Tuesday and third Thursday of every month, Hamilton County’s Public Health Department offers a $20 food safety course with two hours of nasty photographic evidence of things that go wrong in restaurants.
This is not for those with weak stomachs.
“Does anyone know what the pathogen of concern is here?” asked Mandy Bartel, a public health inspector who taught the Feb. 20 Level 1 “food handler” course. She asked the question as she displayed a picture of a large can of soy sauce on an overhead projector.
“Botulism, right,” she said to the budding restaurateur who answered correctly.
Eight of the nine students attending the course were looking to start restaurants. I was student number nine – there as a reporter doing research to better understand how food is to be handled in restaurants to comply with county health requirements. For the second year, WCPO compiled inspection reports, which are public records, into a searchable database to share with readers.
But a reporter can only glean so much from 9,500 inspection reports -- which included a total 32,474 violations at 5,579 food-service facilities from the city of Cincinnati and the counties of Boone, Kenton, Campbell, Grant, Clermont and Hamilton so I decided to see first hand what happens at the classes.
Trust me, I got an eyeful from Mandy’s pictures of moldy bread, grease traps, dead mice and contaminated food.
“The dead ones will attract new ones,” Bartel said, referring to the roaches in her most memorable slide. “One exterminator told us for every one you see there’s at least 900 more you can’t see.”
Between the pictures came lots of advice on temperature controls while defrosting, cooking, cooling and reheating food. These are the most important lessons, as the bacteria that causes most food-borne illnesses grow in the temperature “danger zone” between 41 degrees and 135 degrees Farenheit, she said.
“What really shocked me was the temperature danger zone has changed since I went to school. Used to be 40 to 140. Now it’s 41 to 135,” said Angela Bedford, who is seeking a Hamilton County food license so she can start a hot dog stand business called Fire and Dogs.
Bedford found the class useful. She even got some personal guidance after class, when she asked Bartel whether it would be safe to serve sausage and eggs from her mobile food cart if she sees potential for breakfast offerings.
“She said, ‘Yes,’ as long as it’s properly refrigerated,” Bedford learned.
The man in charge of Hamilton County’s food inspection program said the goal of the class is to educate restaurant owners instead of punish them. So, much of its enforcement activity is aimed at steering problem restaurants into training.
The county offers two levels of safety training. Its Level 2 Serv Safe course takes 16 hours to complete and covers microbiology, employee health and standards for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point procedures. Nearly 1,200 people took the training last year, most of them voluntarily. Sometimes, Hamilton County requires training for restaurants with repeat violations.
“Our goal here is to make sure people succeed in their business,” said Jeremy Hessel, Hamilton County’s Director of Environmental Health. “Last thing we want, and the last thing they need, is somebody getting ill in their business.”
In the end, the two-hour class was at least informative enough to rub off on a minimally-motivated student who arrived late and ducked out once for a 15-minute phone call. Despite those interruptions, I scored an 80 percent on the 10-question test, which means I qualify for a restaurant license in Hamilton County, Ohio.
Check out the my test below to see if you would have passed without instruction: