The Inspector's Perspective

Food-safety inspector describes his relationship with the c-store industry, FDA

Abbie Westra, Director, Editorial, CSP

MARICOPA COUNTY, Ariz. -- Convenience retailers are working hard to keep up with the continuous foodservice regulations flowing out of pens at the Food& Drug Administration (FDA). As retailers face both food-safety and menu-labeling legislation that has yet to be financed, let alone fully fleshed out, the best thing they can do is get to know the state and local regulators who will be tasked with enforcing the mandates. So CSP Daily News tracked down an inspector to help explain the situation from his perspective.

Meet David Ludwig. He's the manager of the Environmental [image-nocss] Health Division of Maricopa County's Environmental Services Department in Arizona. The easiest way to define Ludwig and the 115 inspectors he oversees, he said, is "health inspectors," though they aren't part of the health department. They oversee foodservice establishments, as well as daycare facilities, nursing homes and hotels and motels.

The way Ludwig sees it, you should want inspectors to find things wrong with your establishment. Because if they don't, a customer could, and then the issue becomes a liability.

"We're dealing with a hospitality industry, and if they don't have 75% to 85% repeat business, they will be out of business in a year," he said. "They have to do a good job out there, and our job is to help them better understand why they should do a good job."

Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, has a very rigorous system that is well-respected by the industry. Inspections are based on a ranking system--the top 25% establishments receive gold seals, 26% to 75% receive silver seals and everything below receives no seal. Not only are scores posted at the establishments but also all violations and any corrective measures that were taken for the past three years. "So it will show you a trend, because everybody has good days, everybody has bad days," Ludwig said.

"By doing that we have some competition because everything is put on our website and the newspapers pick up on it," he continued, adding that the department works closely with operators, as well as the Arizona Restaurant Association to understand industry needs. "Really, sometimes the leaders of the industry can be harsher than we would ever be. What they tell you is, 'Hey, this is our reputation'."

Ludwig acknowledged that FDA mandates are sometimes left to the interpretation of the state, city or even the individual in your store with the clipboard. But he does foresee food-safety legislation becoming increasingly science-based. He points to changes in the 2009 Food Code for safe temperature controls and the handling of cut leafy greens as examples of ways the FDA is trying to minimize gray areas in regulations.

When it comes to working with your inspector, it takes both parties working together to make it a positive experience, Ludwig said. "If you have a good person to work with, you're going to know it from the get-go. They're going to ask questions, they're going to communicate well with you, and they're going to ask for your reasoning behind things," he said. "Anyone can have an inspector from hell. It happens. I'm not going to tell you how to deal with them--I don't know the answer! This department is only as good as its weakest link."

Maricopa County enforces continuous training; supervisors conduct ride-alongs in the field and verbal and written communications skills are stressed. "The industry has the ability to talk to the supervisor if they disagree or the next level up or even myself. We need to be accountable for what our inspectors are doing and what we're enforcing."

For the retailer's part, "It's not getting into a fight and arguing with [the inspector] about a violation; it's asking them to explain so you can do a better job. If you're open with an inspector that way, it will help. If they see that you're really trying to fix things, that should be noted. On our inspections, if they see a violation, they are going to mark it. But if it gets corrected before they leave, it's noted so the public knows it was corrected."

Ludwig also advises retailer not to skimp. "In these hard economic times, a lot of places didn't close but they laid off a lot of their extra staff. Now the mom-and-pop places are trying to just be run by mom and pop, and they let the dishwasher go, everyone else, and there's no one to do the work. That will eventually take you under."

For more on growing FDA regulation of foodservice and tobacco products, watch for the February issue of CSP magazine.

Abbie Westra, CSP/Winsight By Abbie Westra, Director, Editorial, CSP
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