CLOSE
Original image
iStock
job secrets
arrow

12 Secrets of Restaurant Health Inspectors

Original image
iStock

Have you ever found a Band-Aid lurking in your large pepperoni pizza? No? Thank restaurant health inspectors, public health officials who work for city, state, and county health departments to enforce regional food safety guidelines and keep preparation kitchens free from practices that could lead to contamination or food-borne illness.

To find out what it’s like to get a spontaneous look at commercial kitchens, Mental Floss quizzed three inspectors—also known as sanitarians or environmental health specialists—on their duties, from proper cockroach protocol to the simple trick they use to determine whether employees are washing their hands.

Because practices can vary widely by region and even by inspector, this isn’t intended to be a definitive look at food safety protocol—but it will give you a glimpse at what these flashlight-wielding men and women encounter on a daily basis.

1. THEY NEED TO RACE THROUGH A KITCHEN.

Because restaurant inspections are unannounced, the arrival of an inspector can cause a dramatic ripple effect in kitchens that may not be up to standards. To catch as many infractions as possible, inspectors might have to dash through a kitchen the second they walk in before someone destroys the evidence. “The first thing I do is power-walk around the kitchen,” says Taylor, an environmental health specialist based in the South. “We want to see the things that won’t be there in another three or four minutes.” That can include violations involving personal drinks contaminating food prep areas, a lack of gloves, dirty cleaning cloths, or a lack of paper towels at the hand sink. Watching workers try to remedy all this in moments, Taylor says, “is like bedlam.”

2. ICE MAKERS MAKE THEM TREMBLE.

Although virtually any area of an establishment could harbor a problem, there's one area in particular that often invites trouble: the ice machine. “If you're just scooping out some ice, you really aren't seeing any of the important components where mold actually forms,” says Tim, a health inspector based in the Midwest. “Since they don't know where to look, the ice machine can go for very long periods without being sanitized.” Tim also looks at ice chutes on beverage machines because these are often maintained by outside personnel and get cleaned on an irregular basis. “You really need a flashlight and have to turn your head at awkward angles to get a good look inside these machines.”

3. THE NATIONAL CHAINS ARE PRETTY CLEAN.

Viral videos of workers wiping boogers into burgers haven’t done wonders for the reputation of fast food health practices, but Taylor says that major chains are usually pretty adherent to health codes because they conduct their own internal audits on a more regular basis than government inspections, which might only come twice a year. “Your run-of-the-mill mom and pop place won’t pay for third-party audits,” he says. “But a place like Walmart pays a whole lot of money to inspect their bakeries and delis.”

According to Bill Benson, a former private health inspector who has worked with major franchises, it’s about brand protection. “Think of Chipotle,” he says. “It was only a few locations, but they lost hundreds of millions in revenue. Big companies are risk-averse.”

4. THERE’S AN EASY WAY TO TEST FOR HAND HYGIENE.

For most health departments, gloves are considered a secondary barrier between a cook and the food they’re handling—it’s no substitution for handwashing. To check and see if employees are practicing good hygiene, Benson would make a beeline for the paper towel dispenser near the sink and draw a big “X” on the protruding part of the roll. Then he’d come back after lunch. “If the X was still there, it meant no one had washed their hands for an entire shift,” he says.

5. OWNERS CAN GET VERY UPSET.

Having points deducted from a health inspection can mean fines, undesirable letter grades posted in windows, or frequent re-inspection. Taylor says that not every proprietor will take the news of even one minor mistake very well. “I once had one owner of a day care center that prepared food get a 99 out of a possible 100 [score]. She took five steps from me, took out her iPhone, and smashed it against the wall.”

6. THEY DON’T LIKE JEWELRY.

Not in food service, anyway. “Jewelry is considered a contamination risk,” Benson says. “You don’t want something to fall into a food product. Personal items should be segregated from food production.”

7. UNMARKED BOTTLES ARE A VIOLATION.

Plastic bottles full of unknown liquids are a troublesome presence in kitchens, since employees may not necessarily know vinegar from glass cleaner, and cleaning supplies can migrate from supply areas to prep tables. “That’s a high-dollar [fine] in inspections for unlabeled bottles,” Taylor says. “You don’t know water from bleach.”

8. THEY CAN SMELL A COCKROACH PROBLEM.

Insect infestations are a grim reality of the food service industry. Even if a property is cleaned meticulously, deliveries and other outside forces can conspire to introduce cockroaches into a kitchen. After years on the job, Benson could usually tell if there’s a roach problem simply by taking a deep breath. “You get used to the smell,” he says. “It’s nutty and kind of oily. You walk into a building and you just know.”

9. LUKEWARM IS BAD NEWS.

While policies vary widely from state to state, most inspectors make sure restaurants avoid letting food sit out in the Food and Drug Administration’s “danger zone” of between 40 and 135-140°F. “If it’s cold, it’s got to be less than 41 degrees,” Taylor says. “If it’s hot, it should be above 135 degrees. Anything between that, microorganisms can start growing in food.”

10. BEWARE OF BUFFETS.

If you think allowing the general public access to mounds of food for self-service purposes might not be the most hygienic practice in the world, you’re probably on to something. “It’s not even a restaurant’s fault,” Taylor says. “I’ve seen kids sticking their hands in there, grabbing handfuls of fries."

11. THEY DON’T LIKE TO EAT AT PLACES THEY INSPECT.

It’s not about the hygienic practices—of lack thereof—they’ve witnessed. Taylor says that doubling as a customer invites its own ethical issues. “If you give them a low score, they might come back with, ‘Well, you had a sandwich here last Tuesday, we can’t be that bad,’” he says. “I’ve also gone to places just for a beer and they’ve brought me fried pickles on the house. I can’t accept those. You can’t be bribing a health inspector with fried pickles.”

12. LEMONADE STANDS ARE OUTSIDE THEIR JURISDICTION.

While school cafeterias, public pools, and even tattoo parlors can be part of their rounds, health inspectors generally don’t get to harass curbside bartenders. “It specifically states in the [local] food code that children under 12 are allowed to sell non-perishable food products on the streets or on front lawns,” Tim says. Buyer beware.

All images courtesy of iStock.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
entertainment
arrow
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES