Finding my way into restaurant kitchens: a Food Inspector Story

For National Public Health Week (April 3-7th), we’re celebrating by featuring unsung public health heroes who make our communities safer and healthier. Each day, we’ll highlight a public health worker through their own words, sharing their work and why they’re committed to serving our community.

To kick off the week we spoke with one of our Food Inspectors, Shauna Cartwright. Shauna and her fellow inspectors are responsible for inspecting over 12,000 food establishments, 1,800 pools and spas, 3,000 temporary food events (such as farmers markets and street fairs) and started 2017 by incorporating the new Food Safety Rating System into their day to day work. Wow, they are busy!

Public health week blog photo
Public Health Food Inspector, Shauna Cartwright, checking for proper cooking temperature during a restaurant inspection.

How and why did you get started working in public health? 

I’ve always been interested in the health field; however, I also used to have a STRONG phobia of needles and blood.  So while some of my friends went into nursing, this did NOT appeal to me in the least!  In college, I decided on a Medical Dietetics program, but chose another path after touring an intensive care unit one day and passing out! At that time, I was also engaged to my husband, who was in the Navy, we had a long distance relationship.  So, I decided to quit college and married my sweetheart.

Many years later, after having worked in both county and U.S. government positions, without a degree, I returned to college. I looked in the college catalog for any majors related to health, but not involving hospitals or medical care and discovered the Environmental Health program at UW. In the program, I interned with the Public Health Food Program. As soon as I graduated, I was able to work in a temporary position and was later hired in a permanent position. I have been working at Public Health for 22 years.

What does your day to day work for Public Health look like?

I spend most of my time inspecting restaurants, school cafeterias, mobile food trucks, temporary food events and even swimming pools and spas. Many people have asked me how many inspections I do every day.  Basically, we just do as many as we possibly can.  Some inspections take longer than others. I try to aim for at least 5-6 inspections a day.

During routine food inspections, I introduce myself, and then walk through the kitchen checking for compliance with the food code. If I find a violation, I discuss it with restaurant staff and help them correct it while I am on site, if possible. Depending on the type of violation and how many, I may need to return for a re-inspection within two weeks.  Occasionally, a restaurant needs to be closed.

In addition to routine inspections and foodborne illness investigations, an important part of our work is providing educational visits to restaurants. These visits allow food workers time to ask me questions, without fear of being “written up” for a violation. I provide any new information they may need.

In the summer I am especially busy, as inspecting swimming pools gears up. We do everything from testing water clarity, checking drain covers and observing gates and fences around the pools to ensure safer swimming.

What is new in your field/your work or has recently changed?

In January, Public Health launched our new Food Safety Rating System. Federal Way, the area I inspect, is in phase four of the roll out, so I will start posting window signs in October.

As part of the rating system, we do peer review inspections.  We are randomly paired up with another inspector which allows us to learn from each other and become more consistent in our inspections. For example, during one peer review inspection, I learned about sticky rice and how to deal with cooling issues since it is handled a little differently than plain rice. Every inspector I have worked with is professional and has different talents and skills to use in achieving compliance.

public health is essentialDoes something about the work you do make you proud to work for Public Health?

When I am able to see how an operator can make great improvements in their food safety practices I feel proud of the work I do for Public Health.  For example, on one occasion, the new owners of an Asian restaurant had a poor inspection, requiring a return visit.  There was a language barrier so I arranged to have an interpreter help me conduct an educational visit to ensure the owners and staff understood what they needed to do to fix their food safety problems before I returned for the re-inspection.  They were very cooperative and interested in how to improve. Later, when I returned for the re-inspection, they had been following correct procedures and were so proud of themselves.  I am thankful that Public Health supplies us with the resources that allow me to do my job well, including providing interpreters, when they are needed.

What is one thing you would like the public to know about the work that you do?

I would like people to know that what we do here in the Environmental Health department matters. Environmental Health has played a major role in U.S history. In the 19th century, during the Industrial Revolution, the large scale movement of people to cities caused overcrowded conditions, poor sanitation and rampant disease. Environmental Health began to be promoted and eventually enforced.  From working on safe drinking water to safety procedures for industry—Environmental Health has had a role.  Today our department continues to promote and enforce sanitation principles that are necessary to keep our community safe.

Check back tomorrow to see who we will highlight for day two of National Public Health Week.

Originally posted April 3, 2017.