In the kitchen at Pegasus Smokehouse Pizza on 14th Avenue, one employee comes in every morning at 4 a.m. and turns on the massive oven that churns out hundreds of pizzas a week. This is the beginning of the food preparation process. Scrutinizing this process is general manager Tara Reader.
“Maintaining cleanliness, especially in food service is part of a good business and most importantly a good product,” Reader said. “It shows that you really care about what you are presenting to your customers.”
Small issues can lead to big problems for restaurants. Food-handler cards at Pegasus hang on a small, cork bulletin board next to the walk-in refrigerator. Reader prioritizes safety and cleanliness at her restaurant, and when she saw that two of her employees’ food-handler cards were expired, she took them down and handed them to her kitchen manager to address the employees. Due to state regulation, employees may not return to work until they are re-certified.
According to the Center for Disease Control, 47.8 million illnesses in the U.S. were caused by poor food-handling practices, leading to 127,839 hospitalizations and 3,037 deaths in 2011, the most recent CDC study.
The leading pathogen, contributing to 58 percent of those illnesses, is norovirus, an issue students at the University of Oregon have dealt with. In May 2016, around 30 cases of norovirus related illnesses were reported at UO, leading to changes in health protocols on campus. It was unclear whether the norovirus outbreak at UO was linked to food-handling issues or to the restaurants on campus.
According to the CDC, norovirus illnesses occur when humans ingest traces of stool or vomit in contaminated food. Once the virus has been contracted, it is highly contagious, living on surfaces such as countertops, door handles and utensils.
The state of Oregon has systems in place to help prevent illnesses that can come from unsanitary food preparation. Todd Roberts has worked as a health inspector in Lane County for three years. According to him, the first priority when inspecting is to identify the areas that pose the greatest dangers to public health.
“Food storage, food service and food prep areas translate to what is the most imminent danger to the public,” Roberts said.
At Pegasus, the walk-in refrigerator holds food before it is taken to the preparation line in the back of the restaurant. This is where the cooks assemble the pizzas before they are put into the oven. Toppings are readily available in this temporary holding area. Thermometers in the refrigerator show a cool 38 degree fahrenheit — three degrees below the “danger zone” of 41 degrees.
According to Oregon Health Authority in The 2012 Food Safety Self-Training Manual, the danger zone is the area between 41 and 135 degrees. Food left at that temperature for more than four hours must be discarded because bacteria that grow in those conditions produce toxins that result in illness.
In order to pass an inspection, restaurants need to score 70 or better. In 2016, six of 589 Eugene restaurants passed with a score between 70-79, with the rest scoring above. Health codes violations such as “crust and debris buildup” and “alive and dead insects on the bar floor,” are some of the violations at those establishments according to the county inspection scores website.
Pegasus consistently scores well on its bi-annual health inspections from the county, and since 2006, Pegasus has not scored lower than 91. Between November 2013 and June 2016, Pegasus only received one score below 100. The point deduction came from an employee failing to wash their hands before putting on gloves in November 2014.
Roberts inspects restaurants twice a year, once at the beginning of the year and then six months later for a follow-up. Pegasus is on the list of restaurants he is responsible for, and he said there is some flexibility in inspection times. If a restaurant passes in January, he might not make it back until August.
“We kind of have an idea, within a month of when they are going to come,” Reader said. “I think it would be better for the people of Eugene if we never knew when they were coming so you always had to be prepared for it.”
Beside the cleanliness of the restaurant itself, Roberts is also in charge of making sure the people who make the food will meet the standards the county deems necessary. The food-handler card is only a starting point but Roberts says it is a “phenomenal” place to start.
“As simple as [the test] is, it gives you the first level. Here’s why we do things the way we do,” Roberts said.
Although the food-handler test theoretically prepares all employees to keep customers safe, Reader is skeptical the test does an adequate job.
“I don’t think it’s thorough enough,” Reader said. “Anybody can get it.“
While Lane County Public Health has the power to close or suspend restaurants, Roberts said that action is “rarely” taken.
If a restaurant does receive a score below 70, they have 14 days to correct the violation. If they fail a second inspection they are shut down.
Working with the restaurants is important for Roberts. The county provides consultation on how to address the violations and will follow up with informal visits to see that proposed changes by the restaurant are compliant.
“We will work with them,” Roberts said. “To see their progress is our progress.”