Food for Thought: Part One

Christine Flory got live cockroaches with her fried chicken.
Published: .
Updated: .

Bob Segall/13 Investigates

The Marion County Health Department says more than 600 people reported getting sick after eating at the Castleton Olive Garden restaurant in December. Since that outbreak, 13 Investigates has been taking a closer look at food safety at ALL area restaurants. The two-month project reveals thousands of serious food safety violations at some of the areas most popular restaurants.

When Christine Flory bought her daughter a kids meal at the KFC in Shelbyville, she got more than fried chicken. She also got cockroaches.

"We screamed," Flory recalls. "One was crawling out over the side of the box and the other was already crawling across the table. We have not eaten there since."

The incident happened in October and, unfortunately, Christine's story is not unique.

13 Investigates has spent the past two months at local health departments looking through their restaurant inspection reports. Those reports show last year alone health inspectors found more than 22,000 food safety violations at restaurants in the nine-county metro area. About 9,000 of those were critical violations -- problems that, inspectors say, could make you sick.

"A critical violation is more prone to cause food borne illness because it's usually more serious," explained Jennifer Warner, a Johnson County Environmental Health specialist who has conducted more than 6,000 restaurant inspections in Johnson and Marion counties.

While many restaurants pass their inspections with few violations, Warner says others do not. "I still remember the place where they caught 25 mice in one week in their facility," the inspector said. "I did shut them down. You don't want rodent droppings in your food ... That's kind of a big one for me."

Inspection reports show lots of things at restaurants that you won't find on the menu: Mold and slime inside ice machines, dirty dishes and filthy utensils, sewage in the kitchen, and just about every type of critter you can think of.

Sometimes, they end up in the food.

Last year local health departments got complaints of live bugs, dead bugs, hair, plastic, metal shavings, chewing gum and Band-Aids being served up to unsuspecting customers.

When that happens, health departments investigate. In Marion County there are 21 inspectors watching out for serious violations.

"Not every violation will result in contamination of the food," said Ed Culver, administrator of Marion County's Department of Food Safety. "You have to have all the right circumstances come together in order to have a food borne illness."

That's what happened at the Olive Garden in Castleton, where Diana Redman and her daughter Courtney got sick in December.

"When she started vomiting and I felt sick, I knew it was probably food poisoning," Redman told investigative reporter Bob Segall. "It was horrible and it lasted five days."

Like the Redmans, more than 600 people called the Marion County Health Department in mid-December to report getting sick. The health department blames the outbreak on a norovirus, a powerful infection which may have been spread by sick restaurant employees who infected the food.

Last year, the Marion County Health Department received dozens of complaints from customers who said they got sick after eating at a local restaurant. In most of those cases, inspectors could not confirm whether the illnesses were, in fact, caused by eating out. But inspectors do take complaints seriously.

"Food borne illness is grossly under-reported in this country so there may be quite a few cases out there that nobody knows about," Culver said. "What happened (at the Olive Garden) certainly drives home the point everyone needs to be cognizant of the health status of the people who are working in food establishments."

Inspectors say it is not unusual for sick restaurant employees to report for work rather than stay home. That is why many inspectors watch closely to make sure restaurant staff are washing their hands and handling food correctly.

According to state law, restaurant employees who are making and serving your food are not supposed to be touching ready-to-eat food with their bare hands.

"Getting people to minimize bare hand contact is a little bit of struggle for us," said Marion County food safety inspector Staci Small.

13 Investigates accompanied Small to Shapiro's Deli in downtown Indianapolis to observe food handling techniques. At the time of our visit, all Shapiro's cooks and servers were wearing plastic gloves, just like they're supposed to. But at several other restaurants around the city and suburbs, we saw servers making food with their bare hands. Hamilton County food safety inspector Larry Beard says that's a big problem.

"Whenever I go into a facility, if they are touching my food with bare hands, that tells me they have a personal hygiene problem in that facility," he said.

Beard explained that he frequently finds one or two violations when he inspects area restaurants, and he says that is usually not cause for alarm. But when he finds lots of violations -- especially critical ones -- he says that is when you need to worry.

When asked if he would eat at a restaurant that had recently been cited for ten critical violations, Beard replied, "I would say that's a concern. I probably wouldn't eat there personally if I saw all that."

13 Investigates found nearly 200 area restaurants that racked up a total of ten critical violations or more in 2006. In fact, last summer at the RAM Restaurant in Fishers, the Hamilton County Health Department cited 19 critical violations in just one afternoon.

An inspector found dozens of food items being kept at potentially unsafe temperatures. The inspector also found some outdated food that was two and a half weeks old.

Follow-up inspections show RAM did correct the violations.

"We take this issue very serious and all issues from the inspection in question were handled with a sense of urgency," RAM area manager Dave Hornak said in a statement sent to WTHR.

That's usually what happens after restaurants are notified of problems. But not always.

Last fall, the Marion County Health Department temporarily closed down the Popeyes restaurant at 2402 E. 38th Street in Indianapolis. During the previous twelve months, inspectors repeatedly found flies, gnats and roaches inside the restaurant. In fact, inspectors found bugs on ten separate visits. In April 2006, a customer called the health department to complain, "The place is nasty." An inspector went to check things out a few days later and wrote: "The complaint is justified." When the health department found more gnats, cockroaches, and sewage inside the restaurant in October, that's when health officials shut it down -- until the problems were fixed.

So do you really want to see what inspectors found at YOUR favorite restaurant? You can. All the inspection records are available to the public at your local health department.

What you find may be reassuring - or it may give you some food for thought.

Health Departments

If you see something at a restaurant that you believe should be reported to a local health department, contact the health department in the county in which the restaurant is located. Here is contact list for Indianapolis-area health departments:

Boone County Health Department 765-482-3942
Hamilton County Health Department 317-776-8500
Hancock County Health Department 317-477-1125
Hendricks County Health Department 317-745-9217
Johnson County Health Department 317-736-3770
Madison County Health Department 765-641-9523
Marion County Health Department 317-221-2222
Morgan County Health Department 765-342-6621
Shelby County Health Department 317-392-6470

LOCAL RESTAURANTS RESPOND to WTHR's Food For Thought reports: 

See statements from RAM, Popeyes, KFC and Olive Garden.Back to Food for Thought main page - Check local restaurant reports and read Parts Two and Three.

WTHR wants to hear from you about restaurant health inspections. Comments will be posted on our website although, due to space limitations, we will not be able to post all comments. All comments will, however, be forwarded to state and local lawmakers and health department officials who make policy decisions regarding the restaurant inspection process. Please note: WTHR does not inspect restaurants. Comments about specific establishments will not be listed. If you wish to report concerns, please contact your local health department.

NEW: You can email the Indiana Department of Health directly to tell them what you think about this issue. Specifically they'd like to know if you'd like to see restaurants make their reports available on the premises or online, and whether you'd like to see letter grades posted at restaurants.

Back to Food for Thought main page