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Interactive by Sarah Coe, Stephen Suen, and Joanna Kao. Interactive can be found at http://tech.mit.edu/V132/N48/foodinspections/index.htm.
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You’ve probably heard of the horror stories of finding lizard tails in salads or clumps of hair in soup. You probably think, or at least hope, that it never happens to you here in Cambridge. But how safe, really, is the food you eat around campus?

In the 2011 Undergraduate Enrolled Student Survey, more than 75 percent of respondents said that they ate at a local restaurant or ordered at a sit-down restaurant over the month prior to the survey. And with the dining plan, over half of MIT undergraduates are regularly getting prepared food from industrial kitchens in their dorms.

Fortunately, the city of Cambridge — MIT included — follows the Massachusetts Merged Food Code, a set of guidelines developed by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), the state of Massachusetts, and Inspectional Services, to make sure all food preparation complies with the code.

How a food inspection works

Food inspections are routine and unannounced. Food inspectors try to hit each food preparation establishment at least twice a year. Unlike cities like New York City (which requires each food joint to display a sign with their inspections grade), Cambridge doesn’t require food providers to display a food safety rating in front of their stores.

Kimberly Fowler is the food inspector for the City of Cambridge and is in charge of North and East Cambridge, which includes the area on and around MIT. During each routine inspection, Fowler brings both a standard food inspections form and a remarks form. The food inspections form contains a list of items that she has to check for as well as the respective code from the Massachusetts Merged Code. The items are divided into categories like “food protection management,” “equipment and utensils,” and “insect, rodent, animal control.” Some items are marked in red, which indicate “critical violations” — violations that “can contribute to foodborne illness if not corrected,” according to the FDA, says Fowler. These violations range from having food in the wrong cooling temperatures to employees not properly washing their hands.

Fowler can visit about five different places on a typical day. When she arrives, she finds the person in charge and shows them her badge — there have been incidents of fake inspectors in other parts of the country. “Ideally, I like to see what’s cooking and cooling, because those are critical functions in a kitchen, and as I move my way around the kitchen, I look for things like hand washing, general sanitation, cleanliness, check all the coolers and see if there are any things hot holding,” Fowler said.

She finds that the number of violations varies — she’s seen many with just one or two, and some up in the twenties. “Just by looking at something by sight doesn’t mean that it’s a safe place to eat. They might have a night crew come in and do all their cleaning, so it’s pristine from the outside, but maybe people in the back aren’t washing their hands. Or maybe there’s a cooler that’s out of temperature, or maybe they’re not cooking their chicken at a proper temperature.”

If Fowler finds critical violations or more than several minor violations, she schedules a re-inspection, typically a week later. “On critical violations, I always go back and do a re-inspection, even if it’s just one critical violation,” Fowler said. “We want to make sure that they’re training the people and that they’re handling the violations, so that when I come back, I can see that they’re doing things the right way.”

But food inspections aren’t just about laying down the law and enforcing it — they are also about building trust with owners. “If it’s an established place and I’ve been there three or four times and I know they’re going to take care of it, I’ll just tell them ‘see you next time’ and follow up next time,” Fowler said.

The other side

And then there’s the other side of the food inspection equation — the restaurants.

The Tech contacted the 33 food providers included in the interactive online. Most expressed that it is difficult to be perfect, but also expressed satisfaction with the inspection process.

“I strive to be a surrogate inspector all the time while on site and make sure my employees know the health code,” said Melissa Jasper, owner of The Friendly Toast. “Perfection isn’t possible at all times in a restaurant as busy as ours. I spend a lot of time reminding cooks to wear gloves — this is a new law, and some of the cooks have a hard time remembering it, but the sheer volume is a good indicator of food safety, since nothing sits around long enough to get contaminated.”

Mike Kamio is the owner of Anna’s Taqueria, which has locations in Brookline and Boston in addition to their location in the Student Center. Although all three cities have their own food inspectors, Kamio has found that all three cities have been consistent across the board.

“We find that Cambridge Health Inspectors are great to work with, said Lo Vo from Momogoose. “They may be strict about code enforcement, but their approach is always nice and constructive, ultimately wanting to help businesses succeed in Cambridge through clean operations.”