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Food and water safety ensured 'behind the scenes'

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Environmental Health Professional Week

By Linda Ireland

 Dealing with bedbugs, dog bites, raw sewage and public restrooms isn’t a glamorous job. But the importance of our health and safety makes it a necessary one.

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There are about 1,000 environmental health specialists in Kentucky who conduct inspections in restaurants, grocery stores, hotels, public swimming pools and schools. They make sure the food we eat in restaurants is prepared properly, the sewage we create is disposed of in a sanitary manner, and that we’re notified of any illness outbreaks.

Since much of their work is done behind the scenes, many people are unaware of their presence, said Scott Curtsinger, environmental supervisor for Hardin and LaRue Counties. He would like to change that because, as he says, “We’re here to help.”

In LaRue County, environmental specialists have office hours three days each week – Monday through Wednesday – in the basement of the LaRue County Health Department. They handle 14 programs with a wide range of responsibilities.

The biggest complaint they receive deals with food prepared in a restaurant, said Curtsinger.

“We’ll get a phone call … the person says they got sick after eating in a restaurant.” 

Most of the time, that’s not what happened because most foodborne illnesses show up 24 hours or longer after the tainted food was ingested. Still, the health specialists check it out.

Jacob Handley handles the majority of the food inspections in LaRue County, said Curtsinger. “He’s the one most people are familiar with.”

Last week, Curtsinger did a follow-up inspection on a new restaurant, Farmhouse Diner and Catering outside Upton. The LaRue County Herald News was invited to watch the process.

Reed and Angie Smith opened the diner in January. They’re still learning about the business, said Reed, and some days they’ve been overwhelmed by the number of customers. 

Curtsinger used the inspection as a teaching tool, explaining what he was looking for – and why – and offering tips on better ways to do things. He recommended setting up a schedule to service the grease trap and replacing contact paper with something more durable.

In the kitchen, he washed his hands in the same sink used by the restaurant staff. That way, he can see immediately if all the components are where they need to be – hot water, soap, paper towels.

Afterwards, he checked the temperature of a roast in a crockpot, noting it was 170 degrees, well within guidelines.

Curtsinger said everything in the kitchen, from spices to cleaning solutions, must be labeled.

“(Angie) is the owner – she knows where everything is,” he said. “But some places – they have a brand new 16-year-old employee … everything needs to be marked so they (know what is in every container).”

The Reed’s kitchen was sparkling. Everything was boxed, labeled and neatly stacked – something Curtsinger likes to see. 

“Appearance is 90 percent – if it appears clean, it probably is clean,” he told Reed.

The Reeds earned a rating of 100 – a perfect score - on the inspection – which will be posted on the front door or just inside the restaurant in compliance with a local ordinance passed in 2011.

Every eating establishment in the Lincoln Trail District Health Department region, which encompasses eight counties, must post their rating in a conspicuous location. Green numbers mean the restaurant passed the inspection; red means there was a critical violation and must be corrected within 10 days. 

“Our hope (by passing the ordinance) was to increase the incentive to places to keep clean, stay clean,” he said. 

Curtsinger also keeps track of sewage problems and complaints.

A few miles down the road from the Reed’s restaurant, he stopped at a convenience store in Upton. The store itself wasn’t due for an inspection, but he wanted to check on the sewage system. He keeps records of the location of septic tanks and grease traps and can quickly find the area in question. Most of the time, he photographs the site or the work in progress.

In Sonora, he stopped by a factory that is preparing to install a new 16,000 gallon septic tank. The treatment system features a holding tank filled with foam blocks. The blocks filter and clean the effluent from the septic tank.

Sewage systems for individual homes aren’t as complicated – but they are much more sophisticated than the old “straight pipe” systems that once dotted the county. A straight pipe transports raw sewage from the home directly into the closest ditch, sinkhole or stream. 

In some areas, fishing and swimming advisories have been issued due to high coliform bacteria levels in the water.

Straight pipes are not common in LaRue County, Curtsinger said. He occasionally learns of them through a neighbor’s complaints, but most of the pipes are found when an old farmstead is being divided and sold.

“Farms used to be exempt (from environmental regulations),” said Curtsinger. “They weren’t required to do anything.”

“Now when we come across them we make them fix it,” he added.

He works closely with surveyors and planning and zoning administrators when he learns of land being divided or developed to make sure the ground can handle septic systems for the proposed number of houses to be constructed.

One problem that occurs frequently is a homeowner asking other people for advice – sometimes taking poor advice – when they are having problems with septic tanks. It can be a costly lesson.

Curtsinger, who has worked in environmental services for nine years, said he “hates telling people they did something wrong.” 

“If you suspect a problem, call us first,” he said. “We do a courtesy site evaluation … it’s free. It might not cost that much to fix.”

He also makes “bedbug inspections” in hotels; mobile home park inspections (LaRue County has fewer than five mobile home parks while Hardin County has about 100 – more than the City of Louisville.); lead paint assessments in homes; and public swimming pool inspections.

Curtsinger said he enjoys the variety of his job and the area he works in. 

“I love the rural area,” he said. “Louisville’s not my cup of tea.”

The Nelson County native worked on his grandparent’s dairy farm when he was growing up. While he earned a degree at Western Kentucky University, he held jobs in grocery stores, farm supply stores and food service. All of them provided skills that help him in his current career, he said.

He graduated in 1999 with a bachelor of science degree in agriculture. 

He lives in Upton with his daughter, Joie.

He can be reached at 270-769-1601.