Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Health Inspector and a Tuna Fish Sandwich

The Eastpointer

The Health Inspector and a Tuna Fish Sandwich

By Richard E. Noble

Spending most of my life in the food service industry, I've met a good many Health Inspectors. But Health Inspection around the USA is by no means a uniform thing. In my experience it not only varies from state to state but from neighborhood to neighborhood. And when you get down to enforcement and interpretation of the laws, it varies from inspector to inspector.

I've met Health Inspectors in big restaurants in Miami. I've met Health Inspectors in chicken factories in Arkansas. I've met Health Inspectors in Meat Processing plants in Massachusetts. I've met them in my butcher shop, in my sandwich shop, at my ice cream stand and in my ice cream parlor right here in uptown/downtown Carrabelle. You would think that with all the health Inspectors we have all over this country, we would have a fairly safe and healthy food supply. But if you have been watching the news lately, you know that we don't. Unfortunately we don't have any Health Inspectors in Mexico or Honduras - or China and India for that matter. Ah yes, another of the "benefits" of the "Global Economy."

But today I am not thinking globally but locally. I'm thinking of a rather nice, conscientious fellow that once came to inspect my shop over in Carrabelle. This gentleman was all business. He checked everything. He had gauges and thermometers - he inspected inside the building and outside the building. In his previous career he must have be a bacteriologist or a scientist of some sort. He certainly had attention for the details.

But I am happy and proud to report that my little shop impressed him. Twice he found no violations at all in my shop. He told me that didn't happen often. He advised me to buy a frame and pin his squeaky clean reports on the wall in the dining area where my customers could see them. And I did. When he returned on his next visit and saw that I had followed his instructions, he was thrilled.

But every month he had something new. There was no way to get ahead of this game. These Inspectors were thinking up new plays every day. On this particular occasion that I have in my mind, my man was into pre-prepared salads - like chicken salad or tuna salad. If you had a bowl of chicken salad in your refrigerator, he wanted to know how long it had been there. Any of these type salads would have to be labeled with a date indicating the day they had been prepared.

My wife and I had already conquered this problem. Since we were a little store in a small community, we had to prepare things in very small batches. In fact, my goal was to have a large menu with everything prepared to order - quickly. This was not easy to do. I had worked in a kitchen in the navy preparing food for an "army," as they say. And in Miami and Fort Lauderdale the restaurants I managed had daily waiting lines. My problems prior to Carrabelle had always been not having enough and running out. In Carrabelle I had the opposite problem. I had to devise a large menu to encourage daily business from the same customers and control the waste. I couldn't make a gallon of tuna salad and then end up throwing half of it away.

When it came to the tuna salad, for example, I bought individual cans of white meat albacore tuna - just enough for one sandwich and I mixed the sandwich up with the other ingredients when I got an order.

Well, it seems, the health department was into tuna salad this month. My bacteriologist/inspector had studied my menu and saw that I had a tuna salad sandwich listed, but while searching my prep wagon and refrigerators he found no prepared tuna salad.

"Where do you keep your tuna salad?" he demanded after looking everywhere possible.

"I don't prepare any tuna salad," I told him.

He rushed over to a table and grabbed up a menu. He opened the menu and pointed to my fresh and delicious tuna salad advertisement on the menu.

He finally had me. I could see the gleam in his eye. I must be hiding the tuna salad out in the trunk of my car or some other unhealthy, suspicious place.

"Yes, I have a tuna salad sandwich on the menu but I make it to order."

"How do you do that?"

I took him to my food preparation cart. I lifted a small can of Albacore tuna from the shelf. I showed him a mixing bowl. I pointed to all the various other ingredients that were already in my cart to be used for tossed salads and other sandwiches.

He was totally beside himself. "Wow, that's the best idea I have ever seen," he exclaimed. Obviously he was not an ex-restaurant owner. He probably never worked in a commercial kitchen in his life. When he left my shop that day he promised to bring his wife with him on his day off and get two tuna salad sandwiches.

I couldn't help thinking how strange this all was. Here we were in an age of the local, restaurant chief where the trend was towards home-made everything; where the goal of the small restaurant owner was to give his customers the experience of their life with his own personal secret recipes - homemade sauce, homemade bread and rolls, fresh local ingredients, home grown herbs and spices. And here was the man from the Health Department totally ga-ga over a tuna fish sandwich prepared directly from the can.

Do you think we need some co-ordination here or what?