“No one knows that we are there until something goes wrong and they immediately need us to help out.”
Jeffrey Martin, the food safety supervisor for all of Multnomah, talks about what it is like to work in the shadows while also having a critical role in the lives of Portlanders.
“A lot of people will never see us,” Jeff says. “We are in the background to ensure that when people go to eat there is little to no risk.”
Multnomah County (which includes most of Portland and is one of the smallest yet most densely populated counties in the state) is home to thousands of restaurants and mobile food units (food carts/trucks). Twice a year, a team of people who work for Jeff go to every registered restaurant in the county, doing inspections and teaching restaurants about how to make food safely.
“Our operators all have zip codes that they operate in. They have a list and inspectors will choose their day and who they inspect. For inspectors to pick their day, they will [usually] do one large facility and maybe two small ones, because some are a lot more time intensive than others.”
As for those inspections, Martin’s name is on all of them. Martin says seeing his name on every inspection is very intimidating and humbling.
“You’re taking responsibility for five thousand licenses. You can have a power trip [and it can] go to your head. It hasn’t happened to me, because I know I am here to help [businesses] flourish.”
His job, Martin tells us, is to teach. Fining doesn’t help business and penalties don’t make places want to work with the food safety department. Instead, Martin says he is there to find out what places are doing wrong, and to show them how to do things better.
“We always say educate, educate, educate, educate, and then enforce. I try to really focus on making a business work.”
If a kitchen’s refrigerator doesn’t work, instead of shutting down the entire store, he will tell the restaurant they can no longer use the fridge and must make do with their other appliances. But then, if something does need to be enforced to an extreme level, there is little limit on the power they have and they can enforce harsh penalties.
“The code is written very loosely for enforcement, so we have a lot of options.”
Just as every business is different and changes on every given day, every interaction is different. Some are willing to work with officials and others see the inspectors in a less positive light.
“Sometimes there is a negative view of government and they don’t understand our role. And they will come in with that attitude. All we can do is come in and be polite and tell them what we are here for: to help and educate.”
It is hard to think about what it would be like without any type of food safety oversight, but Martin was sure to give me an example: “Think about going to eat at your favorite place and you die because of something so correctable as waiting for the hamburger to cook, that’s madness. Almost all food borne illness are preventable.”