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Health department makes the grade

My Opinion
Jo Ann Spieth-Saylor, Editor

Eating is an essential aspect of life. Unfortunately, we don’t always eat what’s good for us or in quantities that are healthy.
But it is reassuring to know that what we consume has been adequately stored until we purchase it from the grocer and prepare it ourselves or, when we dine out, it’s been properly handled and prepared for us.
In Harrison County, that job is the responsibility of Tracy Monroe, an environmental health specialist with the county health department. For 15 years, she has been paying surprise visits to restaurants, schools, gas stations, grocery stores, lodges, shelters and temporary food booths to inspect the establishments to help ensure the health and safety of those who consume their products.
Horror stories abound of those who have had food poisoning or found unpleasant ‘ and unexpected ‘ ‘extra ingredients’ in their food. And while these situations can be troublesome for the consumer, they aren’t good for the business either. A negative comment tends to outweigh and outlast any other publicity.
That’s where regulations enter. Monroe, and her counterparts in the state’s other 91 counties, have a multi-checklist they take into each establishment. It includes things like making sure storage bins and cleaning supplies are properly labeled, proper water temperature is maintained for cleaning dishes and untensils, containers are at least six inches off the floor so they don’t come in direct contact with a mop being used to clean the floor, nozzles on fountain drink machines are properly cleaned and freezers and refrigerators are kept at proper temperatures.
Many years ago, the Harrison County Health Dept. used to provide this newspaper with a report of which establishments had been inspected that month and any violations that had been noted. For more serious violations, it was indicated when those deficiencies needed to be corrected. So, I was somewhat familiar with what an inspection entailed.
However, after interviewing Monroe recently for a story that ran June 19, it seemed that for each piece of information she told me, it raised another question. Her responsibility was more involved than I had realized, and there are places she inspects that I hadn’t thought of, such as concession stands and traveling hot dog stands.
Monroe let me tag along for one of her inspections. It was to Elvin’s Pastries in Corydon. Unless you’re a newcomer to the area, most likely you have been somewhere that served Elvin Barksdale’s creations (Derby Dinner Playhouse in Clarksville is where I had my last one). Barksdale and his staff didn’t seem the least bit concerned that Monroe was there, unannounced, to see if things were being done properly; they just continued about their work, making sweet treats that made my mouth water. (I appreciate Barksdale allowing me the glimpse inside his kitchen.) I would imagine that not every inspection goes as well as this one did.
With about 200 places to inspect at least once a year (schools require two annually), that would average out to nearly one each work day. Then, there are rechecks. Inspections take 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the size and nature of the establishment.
And Monroe also provides education to the public about food safety. Lately, she has followed up on reports of people who are preparing food in their home kitchens then selling the edibles, which state law prohibits.
So, next time you dine in, get carry-out or make a purchase at the grocery store, look for that letter grade posted on the door and/or drive-thru window. That’s a sign that Monroe has been there, doing her job to keep us safe.
Now, if we would just work on making healthy selections and portions, we’d be in good shape.