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Heather Buonomo, a registered environmental health specialist for San Diego County, shows Christine Haas what inspectors do when they find a problem in a restaurant's kitchen that could threaten your health. Haas also explores some of the worst violations in the county, including three restaurants that were shut down for health code violations.
There are more than 6,000 restaurants in San Diego County from drive-through to casual dining to the finest gourmet meals.
The foods differ but they all have one thing in common: regular inspections, by San Diego County's Environmental Health Department.
A food safety expert arrives unannounced, two or three times a year, at every licensed restaurant.
The vast majority of the restaurants pass inspection and receive an "A" card to hang in their window. But some have serious problems. They'll get a "B" or "C" card, or worse be forced to immediately close their kitchen, until they fix those problems.
"So what I typically start with is washing my hands, just like any of the food handlers would," Heather Buonomo a registered environmental health specialist for San Diego County, explains how a restaurant inspection works.
"Want to be sure that there's soap and water, paper towels," Buonomo said.
Inspections like these are usually done without warning. The county does not allow the media to videotape an actual inspection.
But Buonomo and the owner of a local restaurant agreed to show us how it's done.
Hot water must be at least 100 degrees for cleaning.
Food temperatures are crucial. Cold food must be kept at 41 degrees or colder, to stop bacteria growth.
But some findings at a popular Kearny Mesa Restaurant were anything but good.
Last September, an inspector found 13 violations at Jasmine Seafood, including "numerous flies in the kitchen"... a dirty ice machine and soda nozzle... and kitchen flooring in "extremely poor repair."
Tofu and duck were stored at unsafe temperatures, and three pig carcasses were found at 69 degrees, in what inspectors call the temperature "danger zone."
"And that's the temperature range where bacteria can multiply more rapidly, and cause a food-borne illness."
But Jasmine's owner makes no apologies for his kitchen staff.
He told us the pork from those animals is prepared with an ages-old method that prevents bacteria growth.
He said he's not aware of a single case of food-borne illness involving his restaurant.
The inspector said none of those violations posed an immediate threat to public health, so Jasmine was allowed to remain open while it fixed those problems.
Back on our tour, Heather Buonomo showed us how a clean kitchen should look.
"You want to look at all of their food contact surfaces, such as their slicers to make sure that they're cleaned and sanitized," she said.
The pictures were very different at Oggis' Pizza, in Encinitas where an inspector last August found rodent droppings in the walk-in cooler, and gnaw marks on the pizza dough - a major violation.
That food was discarded, and the inspector immediately closed the restaurant, because of a rodent and fruit fly infestation.
The owner told us, brush-clearing by a road crew caused those rodents to enter his restaurant.
He said it was completely sanitized the next day, and rodent-proofed, to solve that problem. Read Oggi's statement here
"It's not the norm to close a restaurant," said Buonomo.
But it also happened last year at a Baskin-Robbins on La Jolla Boulevard.
A broken sewer pipe left wastewater on the floor, in the ice cream scooping area and by the cash register, in the dining area.
The inspector also witnessed employees making food in a waffle maker while there was wastewater on the floor.
“So, if there's a potential for any contamination of food, or food contact areas, that's when that facility would have to be closed to protect the public," said Buonomo .
A plumber repaired the pipe, the store was cleaned, and it reopened the next day.
A Baskin Robbins spokesperson told us "the health and safety of our customers is extremely important to us."
Alfonso's on Prospect in La Jolla avoided closure, despite two inspections in April 2010 and May of 2011 that left it with a "B" card.
Inspectors found cheese, salsa and raw beef kept at unsafe temperatures, a "very heavy food and grease accumulation" throughout the kitchen, and an automatic dish washer that was not sanitizing dirty utensils.
The restaurant scored 80 points on last May's inspection: one point less, and it would have been downgraded even more, to a "C" card.
At an administrative hearing last May, Alfonso's owners agreed to routinely test food temperatures, keep a log sheet of results for inspectors, and make other improvements.
The owners blamed those problems on "equipment malfunctions" and told us they've "invested the money necessary to update all of our equipment.” Read Alfonso's statement here
From downtown, to Alpine, Carlsbad, and 4-S Ranch, other restaurants have also been downgraded to "B" status because they scored less than 90, on a 100 points.
Among the eleven violations at the Emerald Cafe, an inspector found quote "multiple birds inside the facility.”
The restaurant owner quickly fixed that problem, by chasing the birds away.
But there were major violations for sanitation, and dangerous food temperatures.
The owner blamed an employee for not following proper procedures. He told us that food handler no longer works there.
Those major problems were corrected before the inspector left, so the restaurant stayed open.
But the health department says a "B" card does indicate significant problems, inside any restaurant.
"It's a great tool for the public to make an educated decision,' said Buonomo.
Patrons can actually see a restaurant’s inspection score before they leave home. The County Health department’s website offers a summary of any major violations uncovered at a specific restaurant.
As for the five restaurants highlighted in our story for their code violations, all of them have been re-inspected, and given "A" cards, which they current have.
“The dining public should have the utmost confidence when eating out, considering 99.9% of the 6,832 restaurants in San Diego County are currently operating under an A letter grade,“ Chris Duggan of the California Restaurant Association said.
"The California Restaurant Association’s top priority has and will always be to provide our guests with good sanitation procedures and food safety practices,” he said. “Nothing is more important than the health and safety of our guests.”
In addition to their statements, NBCSanDiego asked those restaurant owners for an interview.
None agreed to the request.
This report originally aired on NBC 7 on February 2, 2012.