After the Loudoun County Health Department reported that more than 135 customers of the Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant on Tripleseven Road in Sterling became ill last July, some potential patrons may wonder how safe it is to eat there. And perhaps at other eateries.
All it takes is a few clicks.
Since 2003, the local health department has posted reports of its inspections of restaurants and similar establishments through a website. Users can look up the recent reports on more than 1,000 restaurants, fast-food joints, school cafeterias, hospital cafes, detention centers, hotel buffets, mobile food trucks, country clubs, shelters and other places with permitted eateries.
There is a useful search function. For example, type in “Chipotle,” and you will discover that most of those restaurants in the county had no major violations during their last examinations.
But one that did was the Tripleseven eatery, which was handed two priority and three core violations on August 23, according to the site. The priority infractions are generally more severe than core offenses, said Victor Avitto, environmental health supervisor with the Loudoun health department. Some may consider a core roach violation to be worse than certain priority offenses.
The state implemented some new classifications last year, such as changing critical violations to priority ones, to better align with federal guidelines. Priority transgressions refer to those that can lead to a foodborne illness, while priority foundation violations identify problems that can lead to a priority offense.The core infractions usually relate to general sanitation, operational controls, facilities, and equipment, including the existence of roaches and flies.
The priority violations the Sterling Chipotle received were for a spoon having “visible accumulations of soil and debris” and not effectively sanitizing kitchen equipment. Both were corrected during the inspection.
The core violations in the Sterling Chipotle’s case were for flies observed in the kitchen, employees being without proper hair protection and utensils being stacked while wet after being cleaned – they need to be allowed to air dry before put away to avoid microbial growth. The restaurant had no violations in two previous inspections conducted in late July and mid-August sparked by customer complaints.
Chipotle takes “quick and appropriate action” to address any reported violations, said Chris Arnold, a company spokesman. The chain employs an outside vendor to search health department inspection reports on its restaurants around the country to centralize the response.
“Our teams here can follow up with restaurants and operations leadership accordingly to be sure any issues are addressed,” Arnold said.
In July, two of the customers of the Tripleseven Chiptole tested positive for the same strain of norovirus, according to the Loudoun health department. Chipotle voluntarily closed the restaurant for two days in mid-July to do a thorough sanitization. The situation led to at least two customers filing lawsuits in Loudoun County Circuit Court seeking $74,000 each in damages. The cases were pending, as of early October.
That was the only time a Loudoun restaurant has had to close lately, Avitto said.
That Chipotle was by no means the only area eatery to receive recent priority violations. Among others were an Olive Garden and McDonald’s in Sterling, a Whole Foods Market and Burger King in Ashburn, a Chili’s and Taco Bell in Dulles, a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Purcellville, and a Ledo Pizza and Chick-Fil-A in Leesburg.
Most permitted food establishments are inspected from one to four times annually. The ones considered high risk – based on factors like how complex the cooking process is, such as whether an establishment makes food from raw ingredients or not – are inspected more often, he said.
The restaurant inspection site regularly undergoes upgrades with a change to a more user-friendly format about three years ago, Avitto said. The department could hire a new contractor for its data system in 2018, which may alter the complexion of how inspections are inputted on the website, he said.
When the department first began putting health inspections online about 14 years ago, officials received “a lot of feedback” from restaurant owners and managers concerned about the impact to their business, Avitto said. Many had questions about what certain level of violations meant, he said.
The department site takes pains to inform users that “it is unrealistic to expect that a complex, full-service food operation can routinely avoid any violations,” and a report is a changing “snapshot” in which violations are often corrected prior to an inspector leaving.
“These days, we could go a whole couple of months without hearing from owners,” Avitto said.