Beth Torin, RD, MA, CND, is the Associate Executive Director of New York City's Bureau of Food Safety and Community Sanitation, a job she assumed about two years ago. She oversees the health inspections of restaurants, colleges and B&I operations in the largest city in the country (another associate executive director handles schools, mobile vending, camps and other sectors).
That obviously puts Torin in the hot seat, particularly when it comes to some of New York's high-profile food safety and health inspection issues. What most New York operators don't know is that she was herself an operator for many years. Her career includes a 16 year period as a foodservice director at a major New York acute care hospital as well as stints with two major foodservice management contract organizations where she specialized in quality assurance, regional cook-chill production and operational redesign assessments.
All of this made us wonder—how does Torin see the issue of health inspections and food safety now that she's on the other side? We recently interviewed her at her offices in lower Manhattan to find out. The interview proceeded in fits and starts, interrupted by the constant calls she fields every day from field inspectors, operators, politicians and administrators.
How did your earlier experiences prepare you for this role?
Torin: I had foodservice quality assurance responsibilities in all of my earlier jobs, in many sectors of the industry.
For example, I operated large hospital kitchens in both Brooklyn and the Bronx where regulations required quality assurance plans. I ran a USDA approved cook-chill plant and oversaw quality assurance for about 100 foodservice operations in four states, with accounts that ranged from the New York Stock Exchange to the Kennedy Space Center. Good sanitation, HACCP and food safety standards are very important in these locations and I am happy to say that our quality was exceptional.
Has your view of the inspection process changed at all now that you are on the other side of the equation ?
Torin: I see food safety as even more valuable now than when I was in operations. In operations you tend to focus on practical issues: is the food the right temperature? Did the chef have her gloves on? But you don't always look at the issues in the larger sense I see them in today. We are looking out for the health of literally millions of customers who visit all sorts of establishments.
That gives you a different perspective. If I were to go back into operations, I would look at food safety as a much more important issue.
What is the biggest mistake that operators make relative to being prepared for the inspection process?
Torin: Not taking food safety seriously every day, all year long, and then trying to pretend that they have been doing things correctly. Operators should be ready for an inspection at any time.
For example, if there are procedures employees are supposed to follow, but they do not follow them on a daily basis, they will not be following them on inspection day. This has serious consequences, and I don't just mean a fine. This means that workers are putting people at risk of getting sick.
We recommend that operators use "active managerial control." Those of us who have been in healthcare have been doing it for years. A foodservice establishment should have a plan for how the facility runs—as well as policies and procedures to follow and logs for temperature monitoring and cleaning. It is very obvious when we go into an establishment if they are using active managerial control or not. We think that it is so important that we offer a course that teaches it to operators, many of whom then qualify for our Golden Apple Award for excellent food safety practices.
How does your experience as an operator affect the way you oversee your part of the department?
Torin: I have better knowledge of the environment and some of the challenges that operators face. A good example is when we consult with operators who are submitting HACCP plans. In situations like that, Michelle Robinson, our deputy executive director, and I act in an advisory capacity. Her exceptional knowledge of food safety and my operational background in writing my own plans are a great combination.
What is the biggest misconception operators have about health inspectors?
Torin: That we're the bad guys! We're not. We are there to ensure the public is protected from foodborne illness. We are there to teach operators how to address their problems and resolve them and make sure the restaurant is safe for the public. We are not out to write violations or to shut down restaurants. We would be happy if everyone ran a safe operation!
Do you treat foodservice at institutions differently than that in commercial restaurants?
Torin: Everyone is subject to the same criteria, established by the New York City Health Code and the New York State Sanitary Code. A college dining facility operation is subject to the exact same standards as a restaurant. In fact, the citation rates are also similar.
With all of the inspections that go on every year in the city, how do you ensure that the inspectors are doing their jobs consistently?
Torin: We have a number of ways. Our training programs emphasize consistency and we also use state standardization —a program in which supervisors go out in the field with our inspectors to evaluate their procedures and standardize them. We also have a "blind" audit, a procedure in which a supervisor randomly goes out immediately following an inspection and does a duplicate one without seeing the original results. We compare the two as a quality assurance measure to ensure consistency and accuracy. They usually come out very similarly.
We also have the capability of reviewing inspectors' violation rates and failure rates. We then can look at those who are above average and those below average to determine quality of inspections. Although we aren't perfect, we believe that we have excellent procedures in place to ensure consistency.
What determines whether a violation finding merits a warning, a fine or a shutdown?
Torin: Our scoring system is well documented and available in print and online [Editor's Note: readers can review them at www.nyc.gov/health]. We have critical violations and general violations with a point rating system that is based on the severity of particular violations. Our fines are based on the type of and number of violations that an inspector documents.
You can be closed down immediately if you have a public health hazard that cannot be corrected, and these are very clearly defined in the State Code. If your operation gets a score of 28 points or over, it fails the inspection and will get a compliance inspection within 30 days. If it fails the second inspection, it gets a letter stating that the operation will be subject to closure if it fails a third inspection.
Closing a restaurant is a very serious matter and we try to be as equitable as we can. There are checks and balances every time a restaurant faces a possible closure. Typically, it would go through three supervisor levels before it comes to me and in some cases it will go as high as the Assistant Commissioner of the Department of Health. No matter how many restaurants you close, it is still a very difficult decision to make and we try to work with foodservice operators to prevent this outcome.
What kinds of situations come under the most scrutiny?
Torin: Any food preparation technique that requires a HACCP plan. Vacuum packaging and sous vide, which we are seeing quite a bit more of these days, are examples. Another is sushi and sushi rice, which also require a fully developed and approved HACCP plan.
The average consumer is not aware of the potential food safety problems associated with some foods. When operations are required to have a HACCP plan we check to make sure that they are in compliance with their plan in practice.
You hear a lot more about food security these days. Is that an issue in your inspections?
Torin: Food security has definitely become a concern. When I think back to my days in operations and to the number of people who had access to the kitchen during off hours, I cringe.
Here in New York City we have a lot of space constraints and operators try to use their backyards for storage and refrigeration. If not done properly and secured, there is a threat of possible food tampering.
It is hard for our department to make sure every establishment is secure, and every operator has to take responsibility for his or her own operation in this regard. This is not only to protect against theft, but also to protect against the possibility of food tampering or, in the most extreme case, a form of food terrorism.
If you look at the requirements for a HACCP plan, you should have documented assurance of the food chain from the supplier to your own storage and be completely familiar with the chain and its integrity.
In New York, people have become more sensitive to this issue. For example, we are seeing the more responsible operations keep a staff person stationed at self-serve salad bars to keep an eye on things—it is just a good practice.
How do you respond to those who sometimes argue that food safety inspections have an element of political agenda in them?
Torin: Our sanitarians are professionals who have been highly trained to cite what they see. All of them have at least a bachelor's degree in one of the sciences and more than half have a master's degree. They also complete specialized training courses for this kind of work.
We are only concerned with food safety and we have a check-and-balance system for monitoring and follow-up. We also have very clear cut procedures in place that serve to maintain the consistency and integrity of our inspections.
No one likes to fail an inspection, so it is easy to argue that we are unfair or have a political agenda. However in the end, food safety is not created by our inspections, but by the operator of a given establishment and his or her ability to manage the establishment
All operators could and probably should do their own inspections on a weekly basis. If they were to do so, they would be very well prepared for the day when our inspector comes for a visit. But more importantly, they would be assured that the food they serve to the public is safe and secure.