If you're looking for places to wine and dine your valentine, remember that appearances can be deceiving. The dá©cor may be lovely, the wine selection may be excellent, and they may even have violin-playing waiters. But what bacteria has been cultivating in your Caesar salad? What kinds of dangers lurk behind the kitchen door? Which restaurants have been on the health inspector's naughty list in the last year?

The Whatcom County Health Department permits over a thousand food establishments in Whatcom County. This includes convenience stores, supermarkets, concession stands, fast food joints, and fine dining restaurants, Whatcom County Food Safety Program Supervisor Tom Kunesh said.

When health inspectors check out a restaurant, they bring a checklist of rules and procedures that every restaurant in Washington State must follow. These are broken down into two groups: red high risk factors and blue low risk factors.

For each rule a restaurant violates, it receives a certain number of “red points.” Some violations are worth more red points than others. For instance, a restaurant that is not storing its utensils properly will receive 3 red points. A restaurant that is not storing its hot foods at the right temperature can receive as many as 25 red points.

In general, the number of red points a violation is worth determine how hazardous it is. However, there are certain violations health inspectors consider top priority, Kunesh said.

“Not all red points are considered equal,” Kunesh said.

The single most dangerous violation is a food worker who is ill, Kunesh said.

“Whatever is making that person ill can be transmitted from that person to food that they handle,” Kunesh said.

An ill employee handling food automatically earns a restaurant 25 red points.

Also important is keeping food at the correct temperature and using proper cooling and reheating procedures.

“If somebody makes a large batch of ground beef for tacos,” Kunesh said, “and they don't cool that off quickly, the meat retaining temperature for a long period of time can allow bacteria to grow in the food during the cooling process.”

Another dangerous violation is food workers who do not wash their hands.

“It's probably the single most common violation that we write,” Kunesh said.

An employee caught not washing his or her hands can earn a restaurant 15 red points.

Cross contamination is also a serious health hazard, Kunesh said. For example, chopping meat and lettuce on the same cutting board can cause bacteria from the meat to get in the lettuce. A restaurant can get 15 red points if surfaces used for raw meat are not properly cleaned and sanitized.

Health inspectors also check to see if toxic substances such as bleach, window cleaners, and degreasers are properly labeled and stored. Store-bought pesticides like Raid are not allowed in restaurants, but they sometimes turn up, Kunesh said. Violations of these rules are worth 10 red points.

At the end of the inspection, all the red points are totaled up.

“If a restaurant receives more than forty red points, it starts a process that we call ‘enforcement,'” Kunesh said.

If a restaurant receives more than forty red points, the health department sends a letter explaining the nature of the violations, the risk those violations present to consumers, and the changes the health department expects to see on their next visit. This is usually followed by a phone call within a week or two of inspection to talk with the owner or manager of the establishment and reach an agreement on how the violations will be corrected.

About a month later, the establishment is re-inspected. If there are any repeated violations, the health department suspends that restaurants permit.

“Before that happens, we really try to do everything we can…to talk through and work through corrected measures so we don't end up at permit suspension and closure,” Kunesh said.

On very rare occasions, a restaurant that is especially dangerous can be closed down immediately.

“If we determine that the operation of a facility constitutes a threat to public health…then we can suspend a permit on the spot,” Kunesh said.

A restaurant that has no source of hot water, or has a sewage backup in the kitchen, can be closed down right away, Kunesh said.

Whatever the violation is, Kunesh said the health department always tries to get the restaurant up to code “before we walk out the door” whenever possible. The owner or manager of a restaurant is required to correct all violations on a short term basis, before working with the health department to ensure that those same violations never happen again.

Before we look at the top violators, it is important to note that these are results from just one inspection. The inspection trend over time is more important in determining a restaurant's cleanliness than the results of an individual inspection, Kunesh said. These records are open to the public, and can be obtained with a written request at the Whatcom County Health Department.

So where does the food safety program supervisor go for a meal?

“I decline to answer that question,” Kunesh said with a laugh.

Bellingham's Worst Offenders

70 Red Points
Bean Blossom Cafá©
Boundary Bay Brewing Company

75 Red Points
Taco Lobo

80 Red Points
Flats Tapas Bar

90 Red Points
Pho Ly
Super Teriyaki

100 Red Points
Bayside Cafá©

And the number one violator, with 110 red points, is…
Whatcom County Jail

These results are from Whatcom County Health Department records for the last 12 months.