The King of Restaurant City
Mel Lim and his squad of health inspectors keep a vigilant eye on Pasadena’s burgeoning dining industry
By Carl Kozlowski 07/26/2007
As manager of the Pasadena Health Department's Environmental Health Division for the past 15 years and a department staff member twice that long, Mel Lim has seen it all: countless pots of chicken soup sitting at illness-inducing room temperature; cockroach infestations that could make the cult classic horror movie “Creepshow” look like a reality series; and he's come face to face with a rat that jumped at him from a storage cabinet.
It's a tough job, but someone has to do it. And thanks to Lim and his hearty five-person team of inspectors, Pasadena's more than 140,000 residents and countless visitors can rest assured that what goes into their stomachs at the city's more than 650 restaurants will stay where it belongs.
In a world where dozens of people suffered a nasty bout of salmonella after dining at the Taste of Chicago food festival in early July, it's no small feat keeping more than 1,000 food facilities (counting grocery stores and shops that sell snacks) in line.
“When I first started in the profession, inspection of restaurants was based on spots — dirty walls, floors, things like that,” Lim explained recently. “Today we know more critical risk factors that cause food-borne illness, and there are five recognized by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC): employee hygiene, improper cooking temperature, improper storage temperature, contaminated food surfaces and food from unapproved sources.”
Although Pasadena differs from Los Angeles County in that city inspectors give restaurants numeric and not letter grades to signify a place's overall quality, for both city and county health officials, “Education helps to improve the problems,” Lim said. But even more important, given the growing number of businesses requiring regulation, “It's all about vigilance.”
Making the grade
Lim grew up in San Francisco and attended UCLA, graduating with a degree in biology, then earning another bachelor's degree in environmental health at Cal State LA. In considering the history of changes in public health enforcement over the past century, Lim noted that most California health departments operated at a city level until the mid-1960s, when most local governments opted to consolidate their efforts under the umbrella of the county.
Pasadena and Long Beach were two of the few cities to buck that trend and today remain the only independent health departments in LA County. The idea behind that independence was that an individual city could better customize healthy-living programs for their residents than a larger bureaucracy covering far more terrain.
The most noticeable difference in how Pasadena operates is in its grading system for restaurants. While LA County established its letter-grading system of A through F eight years ago and requires restaurants under its jurisdiction to post their grades in their front windows, Pasadena's system is more subtle, operating under a numeric grading system in which serious violators are either shut down or forced to clean up immediately.
Minor infractions are listed in reports that are turned over directly to restaurant managers. While the numeric grades of Pasadena restaurants can be sent to residents by request and are posted on the city's Web site, the scores are not required to be posted at the restaurants themselves.
“LA County was under scrutiny by local [media], which had found conditions that were horrible. Inspections were not getting done, there was poor personal hygiene and there was over a month of news on all the problems,” Lim recalled. “They instituted a check-and-balance system with the current grading system. We don't do that here because we do have inspections and we don't have the deplorable conditions getting on television. We also have enough staff to cover inspections. Because LA County is so large, they only have so many who can cover the area.”
Lim noted that another important reason why Pasadena doesn't emphasize the letter grade is because “grading is at just that point in time,” he said, explaining that an A one day could be a B a week later, and that an A restaurant could still have cockroaches while maintaining a high grade because other major scoring factors are perfect.
“On the other hand, a restaurant could get a C due to one bad day, with one employee spilling something big on the floor just as an inspector walks in,” Lim said.
As Lim's counterpart and the head of the LA County Public Health Department's Environmental Health Division, Terrance Powell has seen his share of horror stories over 23 years in the public health sector.
After all, he and his staff have to deal with a staggering 38,000 retail food facilities in the county, as opposed to just more than 1,000 such facilities in Pasadena — and then figure out a way to ensure that every one of those places is safe.
“In LA, we determine the frequency of inspections based on risk. Those that are low risk are ones that are selling only pre-packaged foods such as a convenience market, drugstore, Blockbuster Video or liquor store, and they get visited once a year,” said Powell. “Going up the scale in terms of moderate risk, we have open foods that aren't cooked but just reheated, like an Arco mini-mart where you can buy a hot dog or hamburger. Also, facilities with a simplistic menu like fast foods with just hot dogs or burgers are included at that level, and we see all those twice a year.”
On the high-risk end of the spectrum, however, restaurants that involve cooking, cooling and reheating are seen three times a year.
“That's like a facility that bakes a turkey on Sunday and has turkey dinner on Sunday but on Monday turns it into turkey sandwiches and on Tuesday reheats it again and turns it into turkey hash,” Powell explained. “Also places that serve food for consumption raw — anything from a butcher shop to a facility that serves sushi — are seen three times a year. Clearly, if I'm gonna eat raw fish or steak tartare, the food has to be handled extraordinarily well.”
A restaurant that is closed by the county or has repetitive high-risk violations is subjected to an additional inspection — four spot checks in a year rather than just three — until improvements are made. At each inspection, officials tally up all the violations and assign them point values ranging from one to six, which are then added and deducted from the top score of 100.
That final score earns a restaurant its final grade. In LA County, a grade from 90 to 100 is an A, 80 to 89 is a B, and 70 to 79 is a C. Anything below that shows its actual numeric grade to the public. In addition, any restaurant scoring below a C or which has numerous high-risk violations can be closed on the spot if the situation is deemed dangerous to the public.
“That's anything from vermin like cockroaches, rats and flies, to sewage that's backed up. Other conditions that cumulatively result in closures as well — those restaurants with less than a C — it implies they lost 30 points, or had five high-risk violations of six points each or other combinations; in any case, a lot of violations,” said Powell. “If you're among those, we'll call you in on how to mitigate this problem in a hearing, and if it happens twice in a year, then we'll close you.”
Powell feels that this program utilizes a proper level of aggressive enforcement, noting that when the letter-grade system started in 1999, 5.6 percent of county restaurants scored less than a C, but that total has shrunk to .1 or .2 percent presently.
At the top of the scale, 58 percent of restaurants earned an A in 1999, while 80 to 83 percent of county restaurants have earned that designation today.
“In my opinion, the hallmark of our program has been the elimination of facilities that are the worst and have the greatest potential for problems. I'd like to say the industry has stepped up to the table and improved their operation and that others might have gone out of business because they couldn't cut it,” said Powell. “But we offer [computerized] courseware and training to restaurants in trouble, teaching them how to operate in a safe fashion. We offer the courseware in seven languages, with printed materials in five languages, and this makes sure that language isn't an impediment in giving restaurants the info to operate safely.”
While Lim and Powell are the frontmen for their respective departments, they are hardly the first people to hear complaints from residents.
While LA County's department has multiple staff members devoted to taking calls due to the high number of facilities to monitor, in Pasadena the job falls entirely on Staff Assistant Susana De la Torre.
While she has been on staff with the Pasadena Health Department for just the past five months, De la Torre has already heard enough to change her own dining habits.
“It tends to gross me out. It affects you because I've heard complaints about establishments I used to eat at and now I'm like, ‘Hmm, don't know if I wanna go there anymore,'” she noted.
The top two complaints De la Torre receives regard possible food-borne illnesses and employees not washing their hands after using the restroom. When two or more complaints about food-borne illness come in from the same restaurant, the department goes into crisis mode and immediately investigates that business. But it's the more unique complaints that make her job truly memorable.
“I once received a call from a lady who found ants baked into a pastry she bought in a store. Then I got a call from a lady who got halfway through her salad before finding a penny at the bottom — an extra little treat,” joked De la Torre.
“I received a call about an employee handling food with an open cut on his index finger — no Band-Aid or anything. Then there was a person who found a used Band-Aid in her salad, but I don't think the incidents were related.”
While De la Torre is seriously reconsidering ever eating in any restaurant again, Lim stresses that such incidents are incredibly rare and that he has no problem chowing down just about anywhere in town.
“I'm like the guy who can eat lunch while doing an autopsy. You compartmentalize your mental faculties,” he said.
Erik Cheng, one of five inspectors with the Pasadena Health Department, has been on the beat for five years here in Pasadena and, prior to that, five years at LA County's Department of Health.
Inspectors with the city must have a four-year college degree in environmental health, public health or a science. They then work as a trainee for a year or two, then after 600 hours of training they can take an exam to be inspector. Once they pass, they're fully qualified to conduct inspections.
Instead of looking weary from the horrors he has no doubt witnessed along the way, Cheng sports a broad smile, a healthy sense of humor and a youthful energy as he makes his rounds.
“A lot of people think the problems come sanitation-wise, but there are other factors, such as how much a restaurant deals with raw foods,” said Cheng. “I haven't seen a rat, but I have seen an infestation of roaches. I think after a while you do this job and it doesn't freak you out. In Pasadena, we have so many franchise restaurants that are very clean because they follow corporate standards of how to clean.”
During a recent inspection, Cheng decided to tour the Panda Express franchise on South Lake Avenue. Pulling up behind the bustling Chinese fast-food restaurant, he took a quick but thorough look into and around the establishment's dumpsters, finding that they easily passed the no-mess, no-flies portion of the inspection process.
Moving indoors, Cheng noted a dizzying array of things to do over the course of a 45-minute inspection: checking for clean splash guards and whether vegetables are offered separately from meat dishes; ensuring that heat lamps maintain a temperature of 135 degrees Fahrenheit or higher; and checking whether chemicals are clearly marked and stored away from foods. Cheng marked off a series of questions and declared the restaurant to be in perfect condition.
While the actual rating doesn't have to be posted in the restaurant, a city Health Department certificate noting that the inspection was passed is required to be displayed for all to see.
Much as in LA County, the focus of reinforcement lies in educating employees, and to that end Lim and his staff hold safety classes at department headquarters on North Fair Oaks Avenue. The four-hour class comes at no cost to restaurants, waiters, waitresses, cooks, busboys and nearly 500 employees who have signed up in the first two years of the program.
Meanwhile, an eight-hour certification course trains managers and chefs at a higher level to ensure that each restaurant meets state requirements that at least one state-certified food manager is on staff.
“The Pasadena system points out violations differently. In Pasadena, we aim for education, explaining why it's a violation,” said Cheng.
Here, the idea isn't just to find violations, it's to prevent them.
“They get to know why we're looking for something. Our approach is strictly reinforcement.”