- James Buck
- Andy Chevrefils
Ever wondered what's really going on behind the scenes at your favorite restaurant? The Vermont Department of Health has a pretty good idea, and anyone can take a look at a virtual snapshot of every kitchen in the state with just a few clicks on a website. The Food and Lodging Program sends a squad of health inspectors to the 3,854 retail food establishments in the state every year or two for a thorough check.
Public health inspection manager Andy Chevrefils is responsible for every one of those kitchens. He's been with the health department since 2007, first working as an asbestos and lead regulatory program engineer, and then as an environmental health risk coordinator.
Chevrefils, 40, is neatly coiffed and has a closely cropped beard. More than just a style choice, "hair is supposed to be controlled," he said; it's actually part of the food safety inspection report.
"There are some beards that people are proud of and get big, and I understand that," he said with a laugh. But Vermonters with bushy bristles or long locks need to tie them back or net them up.
All the health inspection reports since 2016 are available through the recently launched public portal, which can be searched and sorted by business name, town, county, inspection date and type, and score. Earlier reports can be acquired by request.
"It's an easy way for the public to see what's going on," Chevrefils said of the site.
There's no option to sort by beard density, but a recent search through dozens of reports found quite a few mentions of facial hair.
In all seriousness, foodborne illness is a major concern, which is why Chevrefils' team is constantly out patrolling.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 48 million people get sick each year from a foodborne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.
Salmonella and E. coli are among the usual suspects, but Chevrefils said norovirus, usually spread by oral contact with infected fecal matter, is actually the top foodborne infectious agent.
"It's pretty prevalent out there," Chevrefils said, but "it's preventable as long as you have good training programs and you have good communication with staff, making sure that staff don't come to work when they're sick."
Tacked to the wall of Chevrefils' office is a poster with a sad little green emoji face with a zipper for a mouth and a swirly spoonful of what might pass in Vermont for a chocolate creemee. But the meaning becomes clear from the large white words in all caps: "NOBODY WANTS TO EAT YOUR POOP." Underneath in smaller letters, the poster reminds viewers to "take 20 seconds to wash your hands after using the bathroom."
Chevrefils chuckled at the mention of the poster. It's from a similar program in Nebraska, and he also found it pretty eye-catching. "It gets people to talk about it, to talk about washing hands and having good personal hygiene, for sure," he said.
Green Mountain Laws
Vermont's food safety laws are based on the U.S. Food & Drug Administration Food Code, which provides a modern scientific model for local, state, tribal and federal governments to regulate retail and food service industries.
Eleven health inspectors cover the entire state of Vermont, and each has a specific territory. Those who canvass higher density areas such as Burlington and South Burlington might cover smaller regions, but most inspectors have 450 to 500 assigned establishments.
Inspectors' days begin with an email and phone check, and their "do list" is updated every night. A typical week could include rounds of routine and unannounced inspections, as well as opening inspections for new restaurants, prescheduled inspections, checks of food processors (289 statewide, by last count), lodging establishments (580), home kitchens (257), schools (334) and children's camps (67). There are even a few Vermont shellfish facilities that need to be thoroughly trawled.
Inspectors might hit four to six establishments in a day, or take all day to go through a single manufacturing facility. This time of year, restaurants are buzzing around ski destinations, so inspectors in resort areas may spend more time near the slopes.
Food trucks are typically licensed as commercial caterers or temporary food service establishments. They can be "harder to track down," Chevrefils said, but inspectors generally know where they might post up or can find them ahead of planned events such as fairs and festivals. Trucks are held to the same food-handling and temperature requirements as restaurants, but the inspection report is a little different than the one for brick-and-mortar locations.
"We've taken out a few line items that wouldn't apply," such as plumbed hand-washing stations or full three-bay wash sinks, Chevrefils said, "and it's a little bit faster for our inspectors to go through," because they note whether items are in or out of compliance rather than assign a point value. The inspection process is similar for home bakeries and caterers.
Food hubs, where multiple producers may work out of a single facility, have also sprung up around the state — such as the Mad River Food Hub in Waitsfield and the Intervale in Burlington. Each operator must have a food-processing license, Chevrefils said, and the hub manager is usually licensed, as well.
"We do have a close relationship with the owners of the facilities, making sure that everybody is in compliance and prepared for inspection, serving safe food," he said.
The Point System
So how do inspectors decide whether a kitchen is shipshape?
There are five risk factors for foodborne illness: "proper cooking temperatures, proper hot and cold holding, preventing cross-contamination, personal hygiene, and food from unsafe sources," Chevrefils said. These rules apply to "every single food service establishment."
The standard inspection is based on a 100-point system with 44 total line items. Critical violations, of which there are 13, each would knock off four or five points on an establishment's score. Those are the considerations that can really make people sick, Chevrefils said.
Noncritical violations often include "structural items, like floors, walls and ceiling," storage, and labeling.
Vermont law doesn't require that food service workers be certified, but many restaurants do ask employees to take food safety training through ServSafe or similar programs. And the inspection form requires that the person in charge "demonstrate knowledge" of food safety.
Chevrefils acknowledged that not all staffers are particularly happy to see the health inspector show up. "There's definitely some, you know, frustration," he said. "It's fairly typical, and we try to just address it in a calm demeanor and stick to our rules.
"Our inspectors do a great job. They've gone through a lot of training," Chevrefils continued, "and we as a program take pride in what we do."
Sometimes there can be a language barrier if the person in charge doesn't speak English, but usually another employee or relative can help translate. The inspector in the field can also make a call to hook up with a translation service.
Chevrefils said inspectors used to travel with a "banker's box" of handouts and fact sheets, but now those documents are attached to the inspection report when it's emailed to the person in charge.
One report from January 2020 noted that the person in charge at a restaurant in Ludlow didn't have a computer, so correspondence was requested via snail mail.
Violations and Education
Most food establishments in Vermont score 80 points or higher on their inspections; those that score lower could get extra inspections.
A score of 70 or below often means the business needs to voluntarily close to the public until the issues are fixed. That could take less than a day or much longer.
"Our inspection team is good at educating first," Chevrefils said. "Let's help [the businesses] understand the problem and teach them what needs to be corrected, and help them kind of carry that forward for long-term compliance."
If an establishment receives a low score, it usually indicates that multiple critical violations need to be addressed.
In October 2019, for example, inspectors found opened mayonnaise with a best-used-by date of November 2018 in the cooler of a restaurant in Brattleboro. The eatery scored 72 overall.
At a restaurant in St. Albans that scored 62, violations included raw meat stored in containers on the ground, shrimp stored above the 40-degree temperature requirement, and live cockroaches spotted on top of a dishwasher.
A Shelburne restaurant scored a 54 in November 2019. Violations included employees not washing up properly and handling ready-to-eat food with bare hands, black mold in an ice machine, a slimy soda gun, and clear evidence of rodents — "all flours/corn meal in four bakery bins in dry storage room noted with mouse droppings on bins and inside bins," the inspector reported.
If an establishment refuses to close, an emergency health order can be issued if the department thinks there could be a public health risk. But that's usually not necessary or helpful, Chevrefils said.
"We're not here to, you know, throw a stick at anybody," he said. "I don't think any restaurant is looking to serve unsafe food. No one wants to make people sick. And we feel the same way. We look at it more as a partnership."
Despite being on the front lines of food safety, Chevrefils isn't fazed when he goes out to eat. He said he doesn't dine out a lot, but it's because of his lifestyle, not his job. He grew up cooking with his mother and grandmother and now mostly eats at home with his wife and two kids, ages 10 and 5.
"But when we do [eat out]," Chevrefils said, "I feel confident wherever we go."