Food outlets in La Plata, Archuleta and San Juan counties maintain high health standards for the most part, says Marian Schaub, food program manager at the San Juan Basin Health Department.
But sometimes recalcitrant purveyors drag their feet in correcting violations that affect equipment or sanitation practices, and that can affect public health, Schaub said. In fact, some food outlets push it to the limit. She cited a restaurant that didn't have a sink; and when they finally installed one, it didn't provide hot water.
It doesn't happen often, but once in a while, someone is shut down.
One restaurant that waited until the last minute to clean up was the Durango Diner. A January 2009 inspection found 15 critical violations. A follow-up inspection a month later revealed the establishment had cleaned up its act to health department specifications, had no demerits and remained open.
"We can close a restaurant if there is an outbreak of a food-borne illness in order to protect the public," Schaub said. "Also, we can close food outlets in the case of a fire or flood, a biohazard such as backed-up sewage or if the establishment has no water or refrigerator."
In the five years she's been food program manager, Schaub said, five food establishments were either closed by the department, voluntarily closed for a short time to remedy shortcomings or voluntarily closed for good. A number of others squeaked by, meeting requirements just as the health department was preparing to close them.
The owner of Willie's Concessions in Ignacio turned a temporary food stand into a permanent nuisance, Schaub said.
"There were significant biological pathogens - disease-causing viruses, bacteria, parasites and mold," she said.
In a 2005 visit, an inspector noted flies, septage being dumped on the ground, no hair restraints on employees, lack of hand washing and inadequate dish washing.
When the health department closed the stand in 2006, the owner dropped out of sight.
In other incidents: ?Mac's Hermosa Market closed and went out of business in March 2008.
?Pizza Hut closed for a day in 2003 to fix faulty plumbing; two years later, the business closed for the same reason but reopened the same day.
?The Buffalo Gap at Vallecito had chronic water and sewage-disposal problems from 2000 to January 2008, when it closed. A new owner took over in November of the same year.
?The China Café has voluntarily closed on several occasions to fix faulty plumbing.
Twice in a year (not necessarily the same calendar year), health department inspectors visit venues that sell food that is not packaged or canned. On their rounds are restaurants, taverns, fast-food outlets, mini-marts, service stations, pizza parlors, drive-through coffee stands, school cafeterias and sports clubs. The goal is to make sure sanitation practices are being observed and that equipment is up to snuff.
All violations found on the monthly restaurant inspection list published in The Durango Herald are critical, Schaub said. The Herald began publishing monthly inspection violations in May 2006. Violations such as lack of soap or towels at a hand sink must be corrected on the spot.
These violations are as serious as bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat food, improper cooling of food or smoking in a food-prep area, she said.
Violations that can't be corrected immediately must be fixed in 48 hours, although Schaub said she usually asks proprietors how long they need.
Identification of liquids is critical, Schaub said. An example: Restaurants use a yellowish-colored cooking oil on grills and an identically colored sanitizer and disinfectant known as "quat." You don't want a burger basted with quat, she said.
Inspectors pay attention to details but aren't looking for the chance to say "gotcha," Schaub said. The aim of inspections isn't punitive but to safeguard public health and educate food handlers.
"We'd rather work with them than sanction them," Schaub said. "Many of them are small businesses and have a lot on their plate."
Many food outlet owners, managers and food handlers aren't familiar with health regulations regarding food preparation, she said. Health department inspections fill a gap in their education because, unlike other states, Colorado doesn't require them to be certified food handlers.
Schaub estimated that 90 percent of an inspector's work involves education. Many entrepreneurs don't know what they need to know, she said.
"Pizza, for example, is no big deal," Schaub said. "But if business is down and the owner decides to add sandwiches or chicken wings to the menu, it could put them into unfamiliar territory."
Violations that go uncorrected can land food servers in hot water, Schaub said. If a violation isn't corrected by a follow-up inspection (in 48 hours or whatever period is agreed upon), the owner receives a notice of noncompliance.
If the violation is unresolved by the next scheduled visit, a second notice of noncompliance is issued. A third notice brings the dawdler face-to-face with a group that includes the inspector, Schaub, the department's director of environmental health and its executive director. The department can issue fines.
"We have to get a little 'regulatory' with some of them," Schaub said.