Whenever a previously obscure restaurant stumbles into the media’s spotlights, somebody is sure to raise its food safety record. After his press secretary was asked to leave the Red Hen Restaurant in Lexington, VA, this past week, President Donald J. Trump suggested that an eatery that is dirty on the outside is likely dirty on the inside too. The Red Hen may just be a tad shop worn.

Political writers were quick to report that the Red Hen “received a clean bill of health earlier this year” and that’s true. However, food safety experts almost always warn consumers not to put too much faith in any one inspection report.

Restaurant inspection reports are best viewed over time. The Red Hen that gained so much publicity by asking the Sarah Sanders party to leave has only been inspected four times since 2014. Most standards call for restaurant inspections at least twice a year.

The Red Hen is not getting inspected that often. Between 2015 and 2017, the restaurant at 11 E Washington St. in Lexington went 14 months without an inspection, leaving 2016 out completely. Inspecting the Red Hen is the job of the Central Shenandoah Health District (CSHD), the largest health district by area in Virginia. In the 3,439 square mile area between the Allegheny Mounts on the west and the Blue Ridge Mountains on the east, there are 1,100 restaurants requiring inspections.

Infrequent inspections are not the only food safety concern for the Red Hen.

In 2014, the restaurant was written up for two critical violations. One involved raw beef stored above cooked ready-to-eat food. The other problem was raw thawing meat stored above cookie bars. During the inspection, the Red Hen operators were instructed to: “Separate raw foods during storage, preparation, holding, and display from raw RTE food including other raw food such as fish for sushi or molluscan shellfish, or other raw RTE food such as vegetables, and cooked RTE food.”

The potential for cross-contamination was corrected during the inspection.

The Red Hen also was not marking prepared ready-to-eat (RTE) food with “consume by” dates.

“If the food is held at 41 degrees F or below the food shall be served or sold within 7 calendar days. Some harmful bacteria continue to grow even at refrigeration temperatures so limiting the amount of time in storage limits the amount of growth allowed for these bacteria,” inspectors noted.

But inspector notes that did not result in a “red” violation for the Red Hen might have been more troublesome for the restaurant if the inspectors had been so inclined. Here’s what they wrote:

“Note; It was discussed that ‘wild grown’ mushrooms or home-grown mushrooms may not be used in the facility and are strictly prohibited for use. Mushrooms must be purchased from a reputable dealer supplier.” Available reports do not indicate how the dangerous mushrooms were being used at the Red Hen or what happened to them.

Other notes from 2014 were positive about the restaurant operators’ use of food and unit temperatures, mechanical dish-machine sanitizing and overall food safety knowledge.

The Red Hen went 18 months until it was again inspected in November 2015, and it did not have any violations. Inspector notes were all positive.

When the next inspection occurred in January 2017, there was another strange inspection note.

“Observed pickles/jams in a hermetically sealed container is not from an approved food processing plant,” inspectors noted in an “observation” rather than a violation. They said the “observation” was corrected during inspection. Here’s what they said:

“Operator stated that jars were for decorative use only. The operator will take jars home. Obtain food in hermetically sealed containers from a food processing plant that is regulated by the food regulatory agency that has jurisdiction over that plant.”

The manufacturer of pickles and jams without strictly adhering to acidic food regulations is a well-recognized food safety danger.

Without more frequent inspections, the Red Hen’s bill of health is more incomplete than clean. Those mushrooms and acidic foods should keep inspectors interested in coming back, even though the White House Press Secretary likely won’t be returning.

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