I’m not a germaphobe. But for a few hours I tried to become one.
A City of Milwaukee health inspector came to my apartment to conduct an inspection of my kitchen, and as if that wasn’t intimidating enough, the director of Milwaukee’s Health Department came along, too. Both were staying for lunch.
I’d invited them over because as a reporter covering restaurant inspections, it was becoming clear my own kitchen would likely fail under similar scrutiny.
Sanitation regulations can be esoteric. Obviously, moldy cutting boards and mouse droppings are disgusting, but restaurants get docked for holding beef with broccoli at 116 degrees instead of 135 or putting dishes in a hand sink.
I don’t even have a so-called hand sink, and I don’t take the temperature of my food. So what other rules was I breaking in my kitchen, and how serious were they? The restaurants I write about get inspected at least once a year and can face fines or – worst case – closure for serious or repeated violations.
The day of my inspection, I headed back home from work before they were supposed to arrive in order to have a few minutes to clear away remnants of my breakfast and do some last-minute tasks. But the Milwaukee Health Department was one step ahead of me. As I walked in, the phone rang. Angie Hagy, the health director, was already downstairs.
I greeted Hagy at the door, but the inspector, Carly Hasler, was still outside parking her car. To buy a few minutes, I asked Hagy if she wouldn’t mind letting Hasler in. She was onto me.
“Are you going to go frantically clean?” she said.
When they came in, we got right down to business and washed our hands the approved way, for 20 seconds.
“I’ve never washed my hands for 20 seconds before,” I admitted.
Then the violations started piling up.
Hasler asked for paper towels to dry her hands. I had some under the sink. As for the hand towel hanging on the oven door that I actually use for hand drying? Violation.
I hadn’t been able to stash away the breakfast evidence, so I picked up a violation there, too. I’d sliced cheese on counter space next to my sink, but food preparation has to be done away from the potential spray of dirty dishwater.
I was honest about some of my sins upfront. I don’t have a trash can, for example. I just hang up a plastic bag that I throw out every day.
“You should get a garbage can,” Hasler said.
I also got dinged for how I stored my wooden spoons and ladles. The handles should be sticking up out of the utensil holder, not the other way around.
As Hasler continued her walk-through, poking around in my refrigerator and opening drawers, it became clear that home kitchens aren’t really designed with food safety in mind. For example, my refrigerator, like most, has crisper drawers for fresh foods on the bottom, which means raw meat and eggs go on the shelves above. That’s the opposite of what’s required of restaurants, since any leaks would contaminate everything below.
Hasler took the temperature of my refrigerator to make sure it was below 41 degrees and tested the air inside of an applesauce jar to make sure it was cold enough. The thermometer registered 35 degrees on both. Although I passed, I’d never have known if there was a problem.
“Temping” is a habit Hasler picked up after becoming an inspector, and she now does it whenever she cooks meat. She also has become a disciple of “OCD” hand washing. This is not uncommon – inspectors, chefs, restaurant workers often say they find themselves following the Wisconsin Food Code at home.
Thomas Hauck, owner and chef at c.1880, told me awhile back that he even takes the restaurant gloves home. “I’ll wear restaurant gloves while preparing certain things, like when I’m stuffing a chicken or marinating rib-eyes,” he said. “It makes cleanup easier and makes life better.”
Sausage causes trouble
After the walk-through, I began preparing lunch: fettuccine with sausages and cream sauce, and a simple salad. I grabbed some onions and raw sausage and carried them as far away as I could from the sinks.
It was inevitable something would go awry with the raw sausage. When I finished cutting it, I washed my hands, but turned on the faucet with my contaminated fingers. Technically, I should have used my clean wrist, Hasler said.
The hardest thing about having the health director to lunch is resisting the urge to continually nibble away at the creamy pasta sauce. Like many people, I love to eat as I cook.
“I can’t use this to taste the sauce, right?” I asked.
Hagy’s reply was stern. I’d have to use a new spoon each time I took a bite. I only got one spoonful in before lunch was served.
One of my final violations was handling the salad with my bare hands. In a restaurant, I would have worn gloves; even at home, Hasler said, I should use tongs to wash and toss the salad.
In many ways it’s almost impossible for a home kitchen to live up to the Wisconsin Food Code, and I’ll continue to ignore several rules – the one against keeping an open beverage nearby while prepping food first among them.
But I will make changes, too. I’ll get a thermometer, and I might start counting to 20 while washing my hands.
In the end, they slapped me with eight “critical” violations, infractions that are more likely than others to cause a foodborne illness. On the upside, Hasler and Hagy ate the pasta and salad, and neither of them got food poisoning later. (Yes, I checked.)
“We wouldn’t shut you down, but there were definitely some critical things that we’d come back and check on,” Hasler said.
Next time, I’ll get home a little earlier.
Food safety tips
Keep your kitchen safe from bacteria and food-borne illness with these tips:
When shopping: At the grocery store, shop for paper products, boxed and canned items first, then frozen items and refrigerated items last. Wrap raw meats in a plastic bag, and place on a shelf beneath the cart.
Test the fridge: Take your refrigerator’s temperature. It should be 41 degrees or lower. And make sure food in your freezer is frozen.
Thawing: Don’t thaw frozen food on the countertop. Thaw it in the refrigerator, under cold running water or in the microwave.
Raw meat: Don’t let raw meat, seafood or eggs come into contact with other food. That’s called cross-contamination – don’t do it!
Wash, wash, wash: Wash hands and surfaces often. Wash your hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds, then dry with disposable towels in these situations, among others: before handling food, after using the bathroom, between tasks like handling raw meat and preparing other foods.
No hands: Use tongs or other utensils to handle food whenever possible.
Sanitize: Clean and sanitize all surfaces, including the sink, before preparing food and between tasks that contaminate cutting boards, knives and other surfaces. Use bleach to sanitize, with a solution of one teaspoon of bleach per quart of water.
Cook to proper temperature: Poultry and stuffed meats to 165 degrees, ground meats to 155 degrees, pork and fish to 145 degrees and vegetables to 135 degrees. They should reach those temperatures for at least 15 seconds.
Keep at proper temperature: Keep hot food at 135 degrees or higher. Once leftovers fall below that temperature, they have six hours to cool to a safe 41 degrees, and they should cool to 71 degrees in the first two hours. Otherwise, throw them away.
Big batches of leftovers: Don’t put that huge pot of steaming chili in the refrigerator – it won’t cool fast enough, which means your dinner tomorrow will have been in the temperature “danger zone” where bacteria was fruitful and multiplied. Instead, fill your sink with ice, place the pot in there and stir until cooled. Or, divide the leftovers into smaller, shallower containers.