It’s before 8 a.m., and food safety inspector Karla Horne’s cellphone buzzes – but not for the reason you might suspect.
“It’s not unusual for a food business Iinspect to call me when they’re thinking about adding a new product or process, and sometimes that’s early in the morning,” says Horne, who works for the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD).
She welcomes those questions from the businesses in her territory – half of Grand Traverse, plus Benzie, Leelanau and Manistee counties.
“I like to say we spend 95 percent of our time doing food safety education and 5 percent enforcement,” she says.
That education helps when inspectors arrive on-site.
“Ninety-nine percent of inspections are unannounced,” says Tom Tederington, MDARD food policy specialist. “Inspections occur anywhere food is prepared for sale in the state with the exception of restaurants and food service facilities (e.g., school cafeterias), which are inspected by county agencies.”
Inspectors present their credentials and meet with the facility manager, discussing the processes used to prepare and handle food while addressing any past food safety concerns.
“I find only a small handful of my clients to be combative,” Horne says. “Most realize the inspector’s role is to protect everyone – including their businesses.”
To that role, food safety inspectors bring science degrees and prior experience: Horne has a master’s degree in biology and formerly worked in drinking water quality regulation. She also completed rigorous training at MDARD.
“Our new hires have at least six months of total training – 1,040 hours of classroom and field training,” says Tederington. “And that does not include the 40 to 50 online courses required by the Food and Drug Administration.”
Karla Horne asks plenty of open-ended and “what if” questions during an inspection. She also inquires about customer complaints.
“A lot of times when people think they got sick from a food, they’ll call the food business before the health department,” she says.
But more than anything, she watches.
“Food contamination frequently happens from an employee’s bare hand contact with ready-to-eat foods,” Horne says. “The whole time I’m there, I’m watching employees for bad food-handling habits. We’re trained to always observe.”
Those observations go into the inspector’s final report. AMiSafe database of food inspection reports logged since 2011 is available for public search at MDARD’s food safety web page, www.michigan.gov/foodsafety.
In one day, food inspectors might inspect three or four small food businesses, like gas stations serving a variety of prepared foods. Inspecting small food manufacturers – bakeries, wineries – could take all day. Large manufacturers, like one in Karla Horne’s territory producing ready-to-eat frozen pumpkin pies, may take multiple days.
Food safety inspectors also collect random food samples and environmental samples (swabs) from food preparation surfaces in their territories. Samples are tested for the presence of Salmonella, Listeria and pathogenic E. coli at MDARD’s Geagley Laboratory.
“We test about 1,000 environmental swabs per year, plus more than 100 produce and ready-to-eat food samples each month,” says Ted Gatesy, Geagley Lab microbiology manager.
“In 2013, we recovered Salmonella in a sample of imported tahini [sesame seed paste] during testing ordered by the FDA,” Gatesy says. “At the very least that prevented some people from getting sick.”
Horne often relies on the Geagley Lab staff’s expertise when taking imported food samples.
“The FDA ordered a sample from a 1,000-pound container of brine cherries that had been re-imported into the country,” she says. “The cherries were suspended in a brine solution, and the lab staff guided me through pulling a representative sample without sticking my hands into a bunch of irritating stuff!”
It was just another day in the life of a Michigan food inspector.