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Does your favorite food joint make the grade?

Many Columbia County restaurants get good marks on health inspections
by: Darryl Swan, Deana Bonds at the Dari Delish on Columbia Boulevard in St. Helens serves up a delightful burger basket during the Friday lunch hour. Dari Delish scored high in last year’s round of restaurant inspections, something management says is 
attributable to a culture of clean at the take-out 
establishment.

Mark Edington, a health inspector for more than 17 years, has a seen a few things in his life that would turn your stomach.

While working as a young inspector in Boise, Idaho, Edington asked to take a look inside a restaurant's kitchen panty. When the restaurant owner opened the door, mice scurried for cover.

But there have been more gnarly discoveries.

'I haven't seen what some people have,' said Edington.

His supervisor in Idaho once saw a not-so-freshly killed duck carcass dangling from a kitchen door handle in a restaurant serving Chinese cuisine, its edible status suspicious, to say the least.

Edington admits that he hasn't seen anything too severe in the time he's spent with Columbia County Public Health. In fact, none of the county's licensed eateries, including restaurants, coffee shops, theater concessions and senior centers, drew a failing inspection grade in 2007.

In Oregon, public health agencies are contracted through the Oregon Department of Human Services to perform spot inspections on restaurants, pools, spas and mobile eateries twice per year, though occasionally the inspections are complaint driven. Every three years the state agency visits the local health department and inspects the records for compliance with state health code requirements.

There is a clear-cut goal to the restaurant inspections: to stop the spread of foodborne disease.

The appearance of more and more restaurants in Columbia County helps that goal - increased competition for consumer dollars drives quality up.

As Edington explains, 'They want to serve fresh food, I think.' A second result is that restaurants increasingly throw out perfectly good food.

'If you and I were out on the street and living from dumpsters, I think we could eat pretty good,' Edington said.

Each restaurant is granted a beginning score of 100. DHS has compiled a four-page manual of various violations that warrant a subtraction from the perfect score. For instance, improperly stored dirty linens call for the subtraction of one point, while the unclean hands of an employee will draw a five-point violation.

There are nuances within that range - some five-point violations are scored at face value, while others, such as those dirty hands, are considered a 'critical' violation that warrant a re-inspection from Edington.

'If there's some problem and we have to come back, there's usually some critical problem,' Edington said.

In Columbia County for the year 2007, the rate of repeat inspections was small. Of the 266 restaurants inspected countywide, only 11 were hit with a critical violation. Twenty-nine restaurants had to be re-inspected.

The scores can be misleading. For instance, while discovering one employee with dirty hands draws a five-point reduction, there is no cumulative effect if more than one employee has the same problem - 10 such employees is still only a total five-point subtraction.

A restaurant with that problem, and that problem only, could end up with a 95 score, a solid showing, perhaps, when compared to other restaurants that get hit with a handful of one- or two-point violations.

'It's not a perfect system by any means,' Edington said.

There is a correlation between the point score and the occurrence of food-borne disease, Edington added, and that it's good practice to pay attention to cleanliness levels when dining out.

'If they're sloppy in some respects…the next question is, 'how are they handling the food?'' he said.

Terri Coddington, who manages the Dari Delish take-out ice cream and burger shop at 1680 Columbia Blvd. in St. Helens, said cleanliness is part of her restaurant's culture.

'We've always had a good reputation, and we want to keep that reputation,' Coddington said of the eatery, which has been a staple pit stop for the hot and hungry since 1952, even drawing in the likes of Bobby Kennedy in 1968. 'It comes down to pride. Pride in our food and in our business.'

That pride has paid off for the enterprise. This year, it garnered one of the highest scores in the county, a score of 98.5. Coddington said her sister and Dari Delish owner, Loryn Thurman, constantly presses home the importance of cleanliness to the employees, reciting a mantra that 'if you can't find something to do, there's a problem.'

Few discrepancies escape Edington's exams, she added, noting that he announces his visit by tapping on the server window and motioning her around to the back service entrance.

Restaurant owners agree to the inspections as a condition for receiving a restaurant license.

Any restaurant receiving an inspection point score lower than 70 is subject to more aggressive enforcement action, including written corrective orders and, ultimately, the threat of having the license pulled.

'That's kind of where we have them over the barrel a little bit,' Edington said.

Oregon's reporting system does fall shy of some states, such as California, that require food-serving establishments to post inspection results in a conspicuous location.

Edington said he personally believes it's time to make the inspection results more accessible, including placement on the Internet.

Note: Pick up a print edition of the South County Spotlight for details of all your favorite south Columbia County restaurant scores.