Buffet restaurants may get a bad rap when it comes to food safety inspections, as Fargo Cass Public Health records suggest they’re no riskier than the concession stand at your local ballpark or swimming pool.

Buffet restaurants may get a bad rap when it comes to food safety inspections, as Fargo Cass Public Health records suggest they’re no riskier than the concession stand at your local ballpark or swimming pool.

Of the 11 Fargo Park District facilities with limited food service, nine had at least one critical violation during their lone inspection last summer, according to inspection records from Jan. 1, 2012, to June 10 of this year.

Three of those facilities had two critical violations, and one – the concessions at Island Park Pool – had four critical violations, according to public records sought and received by The Forum newspaper.

Critical violations are more likely to cause foodborne illness and may stem from problems with food temperature, washing hands or keeping food preparation tools and surfaces clean, according to the North Dakota Department of Health’s Food Code enforced locally by Fargo Cass Public Health.

Core violations – previously known as noncritical violations – are less serious and usually relate to general sanitation and facility maintenance issues, such as dirty floors or improper lighting.

‘An ongoing battle’

Myron Berglund, director of the environmental health division at Fargo Cass Public Health, said the agency has not received any foodborne illness complaints from the public regarding Fargo park facilities.

Most of the seasonal concessions workers are students with no food service experience, he noted.

“It’s probably a new group that does it every summer as a summer job. And when we’re doing the inspection, we’re doing the teaching as to how they’re supposed to do it,” he said.

Of the 15 critical violations at park facilities:

Nine violations were for not using a three-step sanitation process for utensils or for not having sanitizing solution available.

Two violations were related to hot dogs: one stating that the hot dog cooker “must be cleaned regularly and drippings cleaned up,” and the other because the hot dogs were being kept at a temperature of 100 degrees instead of the required 135 degrees.

There were two violations because no gloves were available or being used to handle ready-to-eat food; one violation for chemicals not being stored separately from food items; and one violation for not having a thermometer available to check food temperatures.

Clay Whittlesey, director of recreation for the Fargo Park District, said he wasn’t aware of the critical violations last summer at the district’s facilities, which he said typically may have only a few minor violations.

Before serving food, the district’s seasonal staff must undergo in-service training, which lasts about an hour to 90 minutes and includes instruction from a Public Health employee on food handling, hand washing, food temperature, cleaning and other food safety issues, Whittlesey said.

“There’s no question that these are young kids, but you know also we expect a lot of those young kids. We expect them to make sure that food is handled properly and that the places are clean. It’s an ongoing battle, definitely,” Whittlesey said.

Few critical marks

By law, Fargo Cass Public Health must inspect every food service license holder at least once a year. But as an unwritten rule, inspectors try to visit restaurants at least twice a year.

Most restaurants had been inspected two or three times during the roughly 18-month period of records requested by The Forum dating back to Jan. 1, 2012.

Of the 575 establishments inspected in Fargo and West Fargo, 363 of them, or about two-thirds, had no critical violations, while 189, or about one-third, had no core violations.

Core violations were previously known as noncritical violations, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently adopted new terminology to convey the importance of the violations.

“Because noncritical sounded like it probably wasn’t anything at all,” Berglund said.

Repeated violations that aren’t remedied may prompt Fargo Cass Public Health to suspend a restaurant’s license, which happened May 20 to the Grand Buffet in Fargo. The owners had 10 days to appeal but didn’t, and health officials assume the restaurant has closed for good.

The Grand Buffet had seven critical violations and 14 core violations in its last four inspections.

The restaurant with the most violations since Jan. 1, 2012, was Karma Indian Cuisine at the Vista Inn & Suites in Fargo, which had 17 critical violations and 46 core violations during its last eight inspections before the kitchen closed at the end of April. All of the critical violations came during the restaurant’s six food service inspections, none during its two alcohol service inspections.

Chetan Patel, owner and general manager of the Vista Inn, said the restaurant’s lease was not renewed this spring and Karma’s owners are not affiliated with the hotel.

Topping the list

Berglund said Fargo Cass Public Health inspectors seemed to find fewer critical violations in the past 18 months than in the previous two years as establishments grew more familiar with updated FDA regulations.

“Now, I think the staff and all the people in that industry are getting way more accustomed to doing the (food) labeling,” he said.

Still, with the high turnover rate in the food service industry, “it’s a constant education process,” he said.

Among Fargo and West Fargo restaurants that remain open for business, Season Buffet had the highest ratio of critical violations per inspection, with seven critical violations in four inspections. The violations included foods in the walk-in cooler not being properly date-marked, food and grease debris observed on the kitchen floor under the fryers and stove, and a box of dried chili peppers and bag of produce being stored on the floor.

In Moorhead, Minn., the Days Inn and Fryn’ Pan topped the list with seven critical violations each, but they were inspected only once, which Clay County Environmental Health Director Bruce Jaster said isn’t enough to identify a pattern that may warrant additional action.

“One inspection is only a snapshot of that day and time,” he said.

Through an agreement with the Minnesota Department of Health, Clay County Environmental Health took over food inspections for the city of Moorhead in October 2011. Jaster said county inspectors are still working on building relationships with Moorhead food establishments, and he wasn’t ready to rate their performance overall. However, inspectors haven’t had to issue any suspension or closure orders since the county took over inspections, he said.

“The operators have been very good about complying with the orders,” he said.

For its critical violations, the Days Inn was ordered to “discard all meats in the make table that are outdated,” and clean and keep clean all cooking utensils, food contact surfaces, the can opener and the meat slicer after each use. The hotel has changed ownership and management since the Oct. 9 inspection, and the kitchen isn’t open but may start to serve food again this fall when Courtney’s Comedy Club’s fall schedule begins, assistant manager Tina Jones said.

Four of the Fryn’ Pan’s critical violations also pertained to cleanliness, including a dishwasher who was observed handling dirty dishes and then clean dishes without washing his hands in between.

Berglund also said metro-area food establishments overall are “doing a very good job” of safely serving food.
“We have a good working relationship with them,” he said.