SECOND LOOK: Health district food inspector's job isn't always 'gravy'

Published on Wednesday, 28 February 2018 20:46
Written by Art Secondo

If you own or manage a restaurant in Southington or Plainville and ignore standard food regulations, a visit by a local sanitarian or health inspector can be devastating for business. Yet a well-managed place with strong adherence to regulations can be welcoming, to say the least.

Although Kate Kupstis is an experienced registered sanitarian who has spent 20 years working for the Southington-Plainville Regional Health District, she is fully aware of the enormous responsibility each time she walks into a restaurant.

Kupstis realizes that her expertise can shut down a restaurant’s kitchen. However, that’s not the intention.

“I try to be helpful. Municipal sanitarians are trained to assist food servers to be within regulations and to be conscientious of the importance of health issues related to food served to the public,” remarked Kupstis.

Kupstis also inspects day care centers, hair and nail salons and schools, does soil testing and enforces housing codes, food preparation and codes that need to be enforced, which are priorities.

“I care deeply about the environment and always did,” says the Meriden native, who recently finished testing soil and septic tanks in a large residential development.

How do Southington eateries fare when it comes to health issues?

“Actually, local patrons can be assured that we enforce strict regulations to make sure the public health concerns are addressed with our inspections,” Kupstis says, normally four times a year.

It’s not always an easy visit. At some locations, Kupstis must be cordial but firm, checking temperatures in refrigeration, looking for signs of mold, cockroaches and mouse droppings. While corporate restaurant chains are better prepared for a health inspector visit, privately owned eateries often neglect food service regulations.

Kupstis said next year, a new federal change in food ratings will eliminate the usual point system that patrons have become accustomed to, with scores of 90 plus. However, even a 95 score can be misleading, she points out. Many food locations forget the importance of hair restraints, temperatures, bare-hand contact with food and normal habits at the bar, when bartenders use bare hands to scoop ice in a glass, and cutting fruit without wearing disposal gloves.

Kupstis said she can usually read people and therefore sets the tone during inspections that could last an hour.

“The biggest problems in the food industry are the lack of food training and temperatures of food storage,” she notes. Return visits are standard when violations are found.

Among her numerous duties, Kupstis checks the ever-growing number of nail salons, admitting that can be frustrating when owners cannot speak or understand English. She says nail salons must adhere to numerous regulations that owners often ignore or they are not educated in the importance of procedures used on patrons.

Five years ago, Southington and Plainville decided to regionalize the departments that now encompass “hundreds” of places where licensed people like Kuptsis work devotedly to preserve public health. The combination of serving both communities provided a better structure and, obviously, more challenges.

Imagine being a referee in landlord-tenant matters. Yet, that’s part of the job. Issues involve hoarding and other disputes. Overall, Kupstis said, in most situations, things can be worked out through tempered conversations.

The department has a director, a head sanitarian and three others. Its regionalization is a model of communities sharing expertise and reducing expenses.

Kupstis believes customers can typically judge the cleanliness of an establishment by the restrooms.

“I’ve walked out of places when I personally go out and then, if out of town, proceed to contact the health department,” she explained.

Also, patrons can get a hint by viewing a garbage-littered parking lot, which reflects the concerns of management.

There is satisfaction, she notes, when owners will say, “Thank you. We needed a checkup.” If violations continue, a restaurant can be shut down until problems are resolved.

“Overall, both towns have great restaurants and are conscientious. I love Southington, love my job and every day is different,” concluded Kupstis, recently named to the Board of Directors for the United Way, serving as co-chair for the organization’s annual dinner on March 21.

Posted in The Bristol Press, Southington Herald on Wednesday, 28 February 2018 20:46. Updated: Wednesday, 28 February 2018 20:48.