MADISON (WKOW) -- People in the Madison area are known for eating out. The region often is noted for having a high rate of restaurants per person.
That had us wondering how clean are the kitchens that you never get a chance to see.
In a restaurant kitchen, the conditions can be hot, but there is one moment that can truly make an owner sweat. It's the annual health inspection by Public Health Department of Madison and Dane County.
There are more than 2,500 licensed food operations in the county and sixteen inspectors to look through all of them.
27 News reviewed inspection reports since the start of 2008 with Environmental Health Director Tommye Schneider.
"When we do this, we can tell if a place is out of control, if it needs attention, or if it's basically okay," Schneider said. She described the annual inspections as heavy on education. There are literally hundreds of potential code violations, as set forth by state law. While everything from dirty floors to food that's too hot or cold is subject to review, the most critical violations are those in which food-borne illness could become present.
Inspections are conducted by surprise. If violations are found, the restaurant is given a date to make corrections. Any unattended violations after that lead to fines and a referral to either the relevant municipal attorney, or the Dane County District Attorney.
In 2008, inspectors referred 93 restaurants to prosecutors for a variety of violations. So far this year, the number is 49. About half of the 2009 cases are still pending by city of county attorneys.
Typical examples include the Come Back In in downtown Madison. Inspectors cited it in March 2008 for improperly marked food, a dirty walk-in cooler, and cooked food placed too close to raw ingredients. Three months and three hundred dollars in fines later, the problems were fixed.
Then there's the Microtel Inn and Suites on East Spring Drive. Late last year, it was cited for three critical violations, including milk and cream cheese that were each too warm, as well as milk pitchers not being properly washed. Five hundred dollars and four months later, it passed a final inspection.
By in large, Dane County restaurants are relatively clean. Schneider said the health board hasn't pulled a license because one was over-the-top dirty in 15 years.
"I think overall, things continue to improve in our food establishments in Dane County," she said.
A spot inspection of the records, however, shows the most common types of violations are for food that is stored or cooked at improper temperatures. The biggest concern in these cases is the chance of bacteria growing, "and resulting in what could be a food-borne outbreak as the food sits there overtime," said Schneider.
Such problems were found at O'Grady's Irish Pub on Mineral Point Road on Madison's west side. In May 2008, tuna salad and raw hamburgers were too warm. An inspector also observed mold in an ice machine. The issues were rectified six weeks later.
Schneider said a health department survey earlier this year indicated that the high rate of turnover at restaurants contributes to many of these violations. On average, food handlers only stay at a restaurant for four to six months. Managers only stay on board for a year or two at a time.
The scope of what it takes to keep a restaurant clean became clear when we tagged along with one inspector at Quaker Steak and Lube in Middleton. Every piece of batch of ingredients had to be checked with stick or digital thermometers. Dishwashers and cooking food received the same treatment. Floors and shelves got a look over. Dates were checked to see how close food was to expiration. Even signs had to visible to explain to employees their sick policies.
The Middleton establishment, known for its wings, appeared clean. Many didn't fare as well. Over the next month, we'll tell you about some of the worst offenders. Next week, higher-end Italian restaurants that didn't make the grade.