Video: How do inspections go now?

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NBC News
updated 3/1/2004 3:43:33 PM ET 2004-03-01T20:43:33

Millions of Americans enjoy fast food every day, including burgers and fries, chicken strips and tacos. And they eat them in clean, healthy fast food restaurants with no problem.

Last fall, in a first of its kind report, Dateline examined health inspection reports from 1,000 fast food restaurants around the country and found not every francise met its own company standards for cleanliness.

We discovered some dirty dining: a worm in a salad, a cockroach in a soda, chewing gum in a taco. Nearly two-thirds of those restaurants we surveyed had a least one critical health code violation, the term health inspectors use to define a violation that has the potential to make someone sick.

All of the fast food chains told us they would work harder to clean up their act. Well, did they?

Dateline decided to go back and check some of the restaurants that did poorly in our dirty dining report. We found 34 of those restaurants have had new inspections since our original story, inspections done by experts like Becky Calderone.

Inspector on the case

”I can close a restaurant down if there is an imminent health hazard right on the spot,” says Calderone.

Calderone is a health inspector in the Phoenix area. She's the food sheriff in town, and a number of the restaurants in Dateline's first report are in her territory. She let us go along for their re-inspections.

It's high noon in the town of Mesa, Ariz., as she rolls in to the Wendy's. She's been there before.

“They were having some pest control problems, as far as roaches and mice go,” says Calderone.

In our original story, we reported that inspector Calderone cited this Wendy's for mice droppings, inadequate food holding temperatures, bare hand contact with ready to eat food, and more, ending with a total of seven critical violations. How will Wendy's do this time?

Video: Fast food chains under scrutiny Calderon weaves through the lunch hour rush, her thermometer poised for action. She wants to know if the burgers are thoroughly cooked. She's all business, and she's all over the restaurant. She spots some food that's been sitting around too long, and she swoops down on a problem at the french fry bin.

“When you guys scoop your fries,” she says, “be careful that you are not touching the fries, okay, and that they are not falling on your hands.”

Most important, the inspector wants to know if the employees are washing their hands. She asks to see the hands of some employees. She wants to know if there are soap and towels in the bathrooms.

When this whirlwind inspection is done, a Wendy's worker scurries to tidy up. Calderone taps her findings into her laptop, and prints her report for the restaurant manager.

“I would say overall, they have improved,” says Calderone. “They did have one critical violation that was their hand contact with ready to eat foods. What we're trying to prevent is any type of cross contamination from bacteria that wasn't removed with proper hand washing.”

Dateline went to another fast food place named in our original story, the McDonald’s on Main Street in Mesa. When Calderone inspected this McDonald's Last August, she found four critical violations, including live ants in the dining area. This time, we're asked to wait outside. But it isn't long before Calderone comes out to take a look at the dumpster. It's overflowing, and has a strong odor.

“I'm looking for overall cleanliness,” says Calderone. “The garbage lid should be shut. What we are concerned about are flies.”

In the inspectors wake, a squad of McDonald's workers scramble into action. One climbs up on the dumpster to jump on the garbage so he can get the lid closed, another sweeps the drive-thru, and back inside, a window washer gets busy as Calderone checks the kitchen. So how does this McDonald’s do?

“They did have six criticals,” says Calderone.                              

That's worse than what we found in Dateline's first dirty dining survey. One critical violation was a temperature problem with the breakfast burritos, which are made with eggs and sausage.

“So that is… where bacteria can potentially grow,” says Calderone. “It's a bacteria that is going to make you sick.”

At least, she says, the violations are being dealt with quickly.

“ The owner was there, we have it all taken care of,” says Calderone. “I hope to see a big improvement next time I come out.”

The Jack in the Box in nearby Gilbert, Ariz., is next. It totaled eight critical violations in our original report. The manager told us we were not allowed inside the story, so we wait while Calderone does her inspection, talks to the manager, and emerges with the results: one critical violation.

“The Jack In the Box did very well,” says Calderone. “They did have struggles in the past. However, since then, they've made big improvements.”

Earlier this month, Calderone inspected a KFC named in our original dirty dining report after a customer complained a roach crawled out of a child's kid pack meal. Calderone found live roaches in the kitchen.

And a Burger King in Scottsdale also did poorly in our original survey, and it rang up six more critical violations in it's most recent inspection, including one of the most serious violations of all: undercooked beef.  Inspectors found “raw hamburgers cooked at improper temperatures."

“If it is infected with any E. Coli, and you don't cook that hamburger to at least 155 degrees, you are not going to kill that bacteria,” says Calderone. “And that potentially, could make somebody very sick.”

Most of the other chain restaurants we re-checked still had critical violations, although some made improvements.

-A Subway in Baton Rouge went from seven critical violations to just one.

--A Virgina Burger King was featured in our first story because it had 12 critical violations. A re-inspection found two.

--An Arby's in Cincinnati improved from four critical violations to one.

--And a dairy queen in Taylor, Texas went from 12 critical violations to one.

--The Taco Bell in Hawaii that had a complaint about a roach in a soda was re-inspected, and no roaches, or critical violations were found.

But a Hardee's in Virginia Beach took a step backwards, from three critical violations to four.

The bottom line is that many individual restaurants improved. The 34 restaurants we checked totalled 56 critical violations, a decrease in the number of violations in those restaurants since our last inspection sample. And about one third of the restaurants we checked this time were clean -- they had no critical violations.  In fact, most of the fast food chains have been very responsive to our reports about critical food safety violations.

Restaurants respond

In a letter to Dateline, Burger King said that since our first story, it has “aggressively rolled out" a new clean and safe program, visited all 100 restaurants in our survey, and hired an outside sanitation firm to do unannounced food safety inspections. And, it says it has even closed some Burger Kings because of food safety issues.

The franchise owner of the McDonald’s in Mesa, Ariz., that got six critical violations says all of his restaurants "have consistently ranked in the 9th percentile in health department reports." He says he has the “most stringent" food safety and sanitation standards in the industry.

Hardee's points out one of its restaurants included in our check up was praised by an inspector for being "very clean," and making a "big improvement." KFC said it has "increased an aggressive corrective pest control" program at its restaurant in Mesa.

Back in Arizona, inspector Becky Calderone ends each workday by uploading her inspections on the Internet -- her county posts the reports online so the public can get to them. She knows the restaurant owners do.

“Oh yeah, I've been cussed out, called names,” says Calderone. “Fortunately, most of the people I work with respect food safety.”

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