On the lookout

CNJ staff photo: Liliana Castillo Branden Marshall of the New Mexico Environment Department inspects everything at the restaurants he inspects including freezers, coolers, store rooms and bathrooms. Marshal marks notes on what he sees on a clipboard that is always in his hand.

By Liliana Castillo: CNJ staff writer

As Branden Marshall entered La Hacienda Restaurant in Portales, he was greeted by the owners and manager. Carrying a clipboard, Marshall headed directly to the kitchen. His first order of business; washing his hands.

Marshall is one of three health inspectors with the New Mexico Environment Department based in Clovis. The staff inspects restaurants, pools and liquid waste facilities in Curry, Roosevelt, De Baca and the southern part of Guadalupe counties.

“I was hired to protect the public,” Marshall said. “When I’m inspecting, it’s important not to leave a restaurant until I can honestly say ‘I’d bring my family here to eat.’”

As Marshall navigated his way through the kitchen, he checked everything. Every silver counter, every pot and every pan held his attention at one point. He checked temperatures of every food item that was in the prep area.

“Temperatures are one of the things we focus on. They are so important,” Marshall said.

After venturing into every part of the restaurant, including coolers, freezers, closets and restrooms, Marshall talked to the staff about the inspection. He talked with the general manager Randy Ornelas about replacing a light shield. Other than that, the inspection was perfect.

Ornelas said cleaning is a constant for his staff.

“If you don’t keep it up, it piles up,” Ornelas said.

La Hacienda received a perfect inspection two weeks prior to the restaurant being identified as a possible source of salmonella. Eight of 12 people in Roosevelt County who contracted the disease in July ate at the restaurant, according to state health officials. The source of the illness still has not be identified.

The restaurant remained open during the investigation.

“We have nothing to hide, everything is clean and we are ready to serve,” Ornelas said.

Alan Sena, the staff manager for the Clovis field office of the Environment Department, said that it is difficult to stop the spreading bacteria, such as salmonella.

“Prevention is an issue. When dealing with raw foods such as vegetables that ready to eat, no one would know it’s there. Such bacteria is microscopic,” he said.

Sena stressed the importance of the correct temperatures when cooking and storing food.

“Temperatures are so critical. You have to cook (the food) to a certain temperature to kill bacteria. It’s very important,” Sena said.

Other things health inspectors look for are cleanliness, both in the restaurant and the employees, and compliance with the Environment Department Food Service and Food Processing regulations.

Marshall said food-born illnesses at restaurants are not always directly related to following regulations.

“Some restaurants need another sheet to list their violations and get shut down all the time, and nothing has ever happened there. And I’ve had restaurants with perfect inspections and then they are accused of spreading a food-born illness. Some of it is just bad luck.”

Sena said that restaurant owners want to do the right thing.

“They do the best they can to comply (with the regulations), but businesses have such a high turnover rate. The people that they rehire aren’t as well trained as the staff they lost,” Sena said.

Sena’s staff of three inspects 330 restaurants in the four counties they serve. Each restaurant submits to an annual inspection, unless the inspector feels he or she needs to return prior to the anniversary. Also, if a restaurant is closed for health violations, it needs to be reinspected before it can reopen.

“What’s unique about our profession is that we don’t know how many people we protect. We only know how many we don’t,” Sena said.

Copies of restaurant inspections are public record and available on request, officials said.