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12 Secrets of Restaurant Health Inspectors

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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.

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15 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Pool Lifeguards
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Pool lifeguards do far more than just work on their tan: These trained professionals can detect sometimes-subtle indications of distress, shut down dangerous water activities, and keep visitors safe from harm.

But jumping to the rescue is only a minor part of their routine. To get a better idea of what their job entails, we asked several career pool lifeguards about their duties, from working with dangerous chemicals to dealing with poop emergencies. Here's what we learned.

1. THEY CAN TELL HOW WELL YOU SWIM BY HOW YOU GET INTO THE WATER.

Paul, a lifeguard at a private pool facility in Reno, Nevada, says that he can usually evaluate a person’s swimming abilities by how they enter the water. “People who are less skilled and experienced typically lower themselves into the pool or use the stairs or ladders,” he says. “More skilled swimmers do this thing where they jump into the pool, fully submerge, then push off the bottom and start swimming immediately. It's surprisingly common.”

2. THEY SEE A LOT OF CRACK.

Swimming trunks may be some of the least-intuitive apparel items of the modern world: Get them wet and they’re likely to make for an anatomy lesson no one asked for. “Kids, especially boys, have the strangest inability to notice when their trunks are falling off,” says Marek, an indoor lifeguard in Washington state. “It's usually not a big deal and gets handled when the kid's parent notices and scolds them."

3. THEY’RE AMATEUR CHEMISTS.

Responsibility for maintaining the pH balance of a pool and adding or reducing chemicals to preserve a clean environment is usually the duty of head lifeguards. According to Darrell, a 10-year veteran of indoor pools, handling these substances requires additional training. “This is done at the end of the day and I typically add chemicals twice or sometimes three times a week,” he says. “I add either calcium chloride to control the hardness of the water or sodium bicarbonate, baking soda, to control the alkalinity.” For germ-killing, chlorine and muriatic acid are delivered to the water through a computer-controlled delivery system.

4. SOME VERY GROSS THINGS LURK AT THE BOTTOM OF POOLS.

Some lifeguards are charged with vacuuming the bottom surfaces of pools, which usually produces a composite muck in the canister that Marek refers to as a “diaper”: It’s typically full of hair and gray sludge. But things can get worse. Much worse. “At the summer camp I work at, I've had the pleasure of fishing dead things out of the strainer baskets,” he says. “Frogs and rats. Having seen what comes out of those pools, let's just say that I'm not a big fan of recreation swimming anymore.”

5. THEY DISLIKE LANE HOGS.

Some regulars who use private pools as part of their fitness routine can get a little too self-confident in their skills. “Narcissistic lap swimmers” are a pet peeve of Paul’s. “They can't share lanes and always brag about how they're the best damn person in the pool. It's like, man, I've seen 5-year-olds with a better breast stroke.” (Another way to get on a guard’s bad side: sitting over a lane and dangling your legs in.)

6. THEY’RE NOT ABOVE PEEING IN THE POOL.

It’s a testament to how potent the chemicals are in pools that some lifeguards offering swim lessons don’t mind relieving themselves when nature calls and they don’t feel like getting out. “I know plenty of swim instructors who will relieve themselves in the pool because they don't have much time between lessons and they might be stuck in the water several hours,” Marek says. “One of my former coworkers, and a good friend, has always said that there are two kinds of people in the world. Those that pee in the pool, and those that deny it."

7. IT'S HARD TO PREDICT WHEN TROUBLE WILL STRIKE.

While some lifeguards subscribe to a 15-minute rule—most questionable swimmers are going to get themselves into trouble within 15 minutes of entering the water—Paul cautions that there are always exceptions. “If you're a weak enough swimmer that you would have a problem, you're going to have that problem pretty quickly,” he says. “Though that is only most of the time. Some people get tired and get into trouble later on and some people have heart attacks halfway through their swim. You've got to be ready for anything.”

8. NOSEBLEEDS ARE COMMON.

Irritated nasal passages can be a problem at pools, which means that lifeguards are frequently charged with handling biohazards on or near the deck. “We see a lot of nosebleeds,” Darrell says. “We cover the areas with signage. Hopefully the patron has found a guard quickly if we didn't see it and hasn't left a 50-foot trail of blood on the deck. We then spray the blood with a disinfectant solution designed to kill blood-borne pathogens, wait 10 minutes, then hose directly with water.”

9. THERE’S A PROTOCOL FOR POOP.

It’s the emergency every lifeguard dreads: a fecal deposit in a pool full of swimmers. When that happens, it’s time to “shock” the pool by turning it into a chemical bath. According to Darrell, who considers himself a “poop whisperer,” solids come out first. “Dispersed poop? Everyone out. Scoop and vacuum. The pool is closed for a minimum of eight hours as we now have to chemically burn the water. [That means] basically bringing the chlorine levels up to where even cockroaches would die.” Vomit is slightly less dire: the pool is closed for 30 minutes while the chlorine goes to work.

10. A CROWDED POOL CAN BE SAFER.

The more patrons in the water, the harder it might be for a lifeguard to keep track of everyone. But, Marek says, having too few people can be just as much of a problem. “Crowded pools have the benefit of holding your attention better. If you've got two patrons in the water, it's easy to get bored and zone out."

11. ARM BANDS REALLY ANNOY THEM.

Those inflatable arm bands worn by children? Lifeguards hate them. “They may pop, which would probably be unusual, or they may leak slowly,” Darrell says. “But that's not the real danger. Although they will keep a small child afloat, this is assuming the child has the strength to keep their arms down in order to keep their head above water.”

12. THEY DOUBLE AS JANITORS.

At Paul’s private pool, lifeguards are expected to perform tasks that would usually be reserved for a maintenance crew. “Cleaning is a part of the job,” he says. “Many pools don't have janitors so the bulk of making sure the pool looks presentable is up to the lifeguards.” They’ll even set up tables for parties and clean the bathrooms.

13. THEY HAVE STRATEGIES TO KEEP FROM ZONING OUT.

Guards have all kinds of tricks for not letting their attention wander from swimmers: they keep their shoulders square with the pool, they count how many times a song plays on the radio, and they rotate positions every 15 minutes. “A wandering mind is a dangerous thing to have while actively guarding,” Darrell says. “I count patrons. I go through scenarios in my mind.” Cell phones are usually prohibited: getting caught with one can be grounds for termination.

14. POOL NOODLES ARE THE BANE OF THEIR EXISTENCE.

While people are welcome to bring their own noodles to public pools, Darrell prefers they didn’t. Instead of being used as flotation aids, they wind up getting used as chew toys. “They end up with bite marks and chunks ripped out of them,” he says. “I often wish we could purchase noodles made out of foam that tastes like something rotten to discourage this.” Darrell will not directly seize a noodle from a tiny guest, but if he happens to see one abandoned, he will grab it. And he will not be sorry.

15. THEY’RE NOT BABYSITTERS.

“I think my single biggest peeve when it comes to guarding is parents who assume that we are there to babysit their children for them,” Marek says. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Lifeguards are there to supervise and ensure a safe, and hopefully fun, environment for all. It's incredibly selfish and irresponsible to assume that we are there to watch your one child when we've got hundreds of other people to keep track of. We are there to mitigate risk and respond if something does happen, not to babysit.”

All images courtesy of iStock.

This story originally ran in 2016.

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10 Secrets of Ice Cream Truck Drivers
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Cindy Ord, Getty Images

Ever since Good Humor founder Harry Burt dispatched the first jingling ice cream trucks in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1920, kids and adults alike have had a primal reaction to the sight of a vehicle equipped with a cold, sugary payload. Today, ice cream trucks spend May through October hoping to entice customers into making an impulse beat-the-heat purchase. To get a better idea of what goes into making ice cream a portable business, Mental Floss spoke with several proprietors for their take on everything from ideal weather conditions to police encounters. Here’s the inside scoop.

1. IT CAN GET TOO HOT FOR BUSINESS.

The most common misconception about the ice cream truck business? That soaring temperatures mean soaring profits. According to Jim Malin, owner of Jim’s Ice Cream Truck in Fairfield, Connecticut, record highs can mean decreased profits. “When it’s really hot, like 90 or 100 degrees out, sales go way down,” Malin says. “People aren’t outside. They’re indoors with air conditioning.” And like a lot of trucks, Malin’s isn’t equipped with air conditioning. “I’m suffering and sales are suffering." The ideal temperature? "A 75-degree day is perfect.”

2. THEY DON’T JUST WANDER NEIGHBORHOODS ANYMORE.

An ice cream truck sits parked in a public spot
Chunky Dunks

The days of driving a few miles an hour down a residential street hoping for a hungry clientele have fallen by the wayside. Many vendors, including Malin, make up half or more of their business by arranging for scheduled stops at events like weddings, employee picnics, or school functions. “We do birthday parties, church festivals, sometimes block parties,” he says. Customers can pay in advance, meaning that all guests have to do is order from the menu.

3. SOME OF THEM DRIVE A MINIBUS INSTEAD OF A TRUCK.

For sheer ice cream horsepower, nothing beats a minibus. Laci Byerly, owner of Doodlebop’s Ice Cream Emporium in Jacksonville, Florida, uses an airport-style shuttle for her inventory. “Instead of one or two freezers, we can fit three,” she says. More importantly, the extra space means she doesn’t have to spend the day hunched over. “We can stand straight up.”

4. THEY HAVE A SECRET STASH OF ICE CREAM TO GIVE AWAY TO SPECIAL CUSTOMERS.

Customers line up near an ice cream truck
Andrew Cowie, AFP/Getty Images

The goal of any truck is to sell enough ice cream to justify the time and expense of operation, so freebies don’t make much sense—unless the truck happens to have some damaged goods. Malin says that it’s common for some pre-packaged bars to be broken inside wrappers, rendering them unattractive for sale. He sets these bars aside for kids who know the score. “I put them in a little box for kids who come up and ask if I have damaged ice cream,” he says. “Certain kids know I have it, and I’m happy to give it to them.”

5. THEY’RE CREATING CUSTOM ICE CREAM MENUS.

An ice cream nacho platter is shown
Chunky Dunks

While pre-packaged Popsicles and ice cream sandwiches remain perennial sellers, a number of trucks are mixing up business by offering one-of-a-kind treats. At the Chunky Dunks truck in Madison, Mississippi, owner Will Lamkin serves up Ice Cream Nachos, a signature dish that outsells anything made by Nestle. “It’s cinnamon sugar chips with your choice of ice cream,” he says. “You get whipped cream, too. And for the ‘cheese,’ it’s a caramel-chocolate sauce.” The nachos work because they’re “streetable,” Lamkin’s label for something people can carry while walking. “The next seven or eight people in line see it, and then everyone’s ordering it.”

6. THEY DON’T ALWAYS PLAY THE ICONIC JINGLE.

Before most people see an ice cream truck, they hear that familiar tinny tune. While some operators still rely on it for its familiarity, Malin and others prefer more modern tracks. “Normally we play ‘80s rock,” he says. “Or whatever we feel like playing that day. We rock it out.”

7. POP CULTURE CHARACTERS ARE SOME OF THEIR BEST SELLERS.

A Captain America ice cream treat
Doodlebop's

While adult customers tend to favor ice cream treats they remember from their youth, kids who don’t really recognize nostalgia tend to like items emblazoned with the likenesses and trademarks of licensed characters currently occupying their TV screens and local theaters. “Characters are the most popular with kids,” Byerly says. “SpongeBob, Minions, and Captain America.”

8. THEY KEEP DOG FOOD HANDY.

At Doodlebop’s, Byerly has a strategy for luring customers with pets: She keeps dog treats on hand. “The dog will sometimes get to us before the owner does,” she says. “If the dog comes up to the truck, he’ll get a Milkbone.” That often leads to a human companion purchasing a treat for themselves.

9. SOMETIMES RIVALS WILL CALL THE COPS.

Though there have been stories of rogue ice cream vendors aggressively competing for neighborhood space over the years, Malin says that he’s never experienced any kind of out-and-out turf war. Ice cream truck drivers tend to be a little more passive-aggressive than that. “I have a business permit for Fairfield, so that’s typically where I’m driving,” he says. “But sometimes I might go out of town for an event. Once, a driver pulled up to me and asked if I had a permit. I said ‘No, I’m just here for an hour,’ and he said, ‘OK, I’m calling the cops.’ They try and get the police to get you out [of town].” Fortunately, police typically don’t write up drivers for the infraction.

10. SOME LUCKY CUSTOMERS HAVE AN APP FOR HOME DELIVERY.

An ice cream truck driver looks out of his window
Roger Kisby, Getty Images

Technology has influenced everything, and ice cream trucks are no exception. Malin uses an app that allows customers to request that he make a special delivery. "People can request I pull up right outside their home," he says. If their parents are home, there’s one additional perk: "I accept credit cards."

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