By Eyob Mazengia, PhD, RS, Food Protection Program
When I started as a food inspector, I was assigned to the International District. And I liked it. It was almost like walking into a new culture, a new era.
What humbled me was that as a public health worker, when I went into restaurants to ensure food safety for our communities, I was also walking into people’s personal spaces. I liked the smells, the sounds of their languages, their wall hangings and the way things look. It is a privilege, really, to be allowed into their personal spaces. Going on food inspections throughout King County is like walking into 3-4 different countries every day, without traveling outside a single neighborhood.
I aim to establish trusting relationships with the restaurant establishments. They aren’t just restaurant operators—they are mothers, fathers, grown kids. They’re not just businesses—there’s a family behind every door, people who had often gone through difficult times to be here.
And as I get to know them, through working on food safety, I am also seeing the fullness of their work. I can recognize the sacrifices they made to give their children better opportunities in the U.S., and what they left behind. Even those born and raised here, you can recognize the sacrifices they are making. They work hard, 15-16 hours a day in a very demanding job. These small family-owned restaurants often do all the work themselves, cleaning after closing, cooking six days a week and shopping for the restaurant on their days off.
I think seeing the fullness of things that influence how a food business operates – culture, ingredients, family, customers, cost, the list could go on – helps to make a more effective food inspector. You both provide food safety solutions that work with the business and uphold our public health expectations. We use a checklist and issue citations as a structure for our work, and we also provide food safety solutions. When I see the operators as people and a restaurant as a part of a healthy community, I think “How can I help them improve? What can I do to help them understand how to serve their food safely?”
As food inspectors, we simultaneously wear the hat of enforcer and of educator, and both are equally important.
Most often, the moment you establish a strong relationship, operators have the trust to ask questions, engage, and work to comply with food safety regulations because they don’t want to disappoint you. One man said to me, “Next time you come, you won’t be disappointed!”
As a restaurant diner—away from my job—I love going to these small mom-and-pop restaurants. I love the personal touch with the food, the way they customize the dishes with what’s available. It’s more than just the food. It’s recognizing their path getting here.
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