Making the Grade

Making the Grade

New Environmental Health Manager Liza Frias has big plans for revamping city’s restaurant safety procedures

By Rebecca Kuzins 11/13/2013

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Liza Frias insists she’s not the new sheriff in town, although some restaurant owners may describe her that way.   

Since July, Frias has been manager of the Environmental Health Services Division of the Pasadena Public Health Department. She and her staff of four environmental health specialists are charged with preventing the spread of disease through biological, physical or chemical hazards. They inspect the sanitation and safety conditions of hotels, motels, public pools and tattoo and massage parlors; monitor the city for infestations of vermin, mosquitoes and other pests; and respond to citizens’ complaints about the storage and disposal of trash and sewage. 

But their most high-profile responsibility is making sure Pasadena’s food establishments are using safe and clean procedures to prepare and serve edible items in compliance with state and city laws. That’s no small task in a city with almost 1,000 food establishments — including about 675 restaurants, as well as grocery stores and trucks, food trucks, coffee bars, bars and pubs, liquor stores, Rose Bowl concessions and other facilities. 

In inspecting these establishments, Frias says her goal is to “ensure that anybody who visits the city, who lives here … can feel safe. They know that somebody is regulating and they know when they visit our city they are eating at places that provide safe food.”

“I’m not the new sheriff in town,” she adds. “I’m here to help not only our residents but our stakeholders, the restaurateurs, to make sure that we work together to help them follow the regulations. It’s not about following the law, it’s about doing the right thing.”
 
Change coming
Frias wants to work cooperatively with local businesses to, as she says, “make sure that our restaurant owners, our food market industry, our consumers all have a voice” in the regulatory process. She explains that a large part of her job is educating consumers, businesspeople and others about how things work. “We will always take the educational approach first,” she says. “However, if we need to take enforcement, we will.”  

The division’s enforcement powers became the subject of controversy when the Health Department closed Burger Continental, a long-established and popular restaurant on South Lake Avenue, on Aug. 29. According to the Pasadena Star-News, the department cited the restaurant for numerous violations, including harboring cockroaches, having unsafe food temperatures and contaminated food preparation surfaces, improperly cleaning and sanitizing equipment, and failing to have employees properly wash their hands. 

Frias and her staff worked closely with the restaurant’s owners and employees, and Burger Continental reopened for business two weeks later.

But the closure inspired an angry column written by Star-News Editor Frank Girardot. Published on Sept. 4, Girardot’s column took the city Health Department to task for not performing a sufficient number of inspections, as well as a lack of transparency in its restaurant rating system.  

In that system, inspectors rate food establishments on 100 points applied across about 80 possible violations, ultimately deriving a numerical score which tells potential customers whether the restaurant is — or is not — safe and sanitary. Girardot complained that the current system is hard for consumers to understand and should be replaced with one similar to the one used by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. That department inspects food establishments throughout the county, except in the cities of Pasadena, Long Beach and Vernon, and assigns facilities letter grades of either “A,” “B” or “C.”  

Girardot argued the letter-grade system is easier to decipher than the numerical system used by Pasadena’s Health Department. He also criticized the city department’s method of posting restaurant ratings on its Web site for being similarly incomprehensible.  

At the time the column was published, the Health Department had already begun addressing the problems Girardot cited, according to department Director Dr. Eric Walsh. As part of its efforts at improving the inspection process, Walsh says his agency received a grant of more than $300,000 from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which will enable employees to conduct inspections using tablet computers.  Another step toward improvement was hiring Frias to replace William Kimura, who died earlier this year.

A tough sell
During the 2013-14 fiscal year, ending June 30, Frias plans to begin several initiatives aimed at changing how the Environmental Health Services Division performs its job. One goal, she said, is to implement a new software program that provides inspectors with the ability to determine which facilities need to be inspected, how many facilities there are and gain a true picture of the city’s legal responsibilities.

As part of this program, staff members who conduct inspections of food establishments would be able to enter ratings-related data into tablets. Using tablets, Frias says, will not only speed up inspections, but also give inspectors the ability to show restaurant operators how their facility has been rated and better educate owners about the inspection process.  Owners, she adds, “will be able to sign the inspection reports right at the time of inspection.”

Frias also plans to make restaurant ratings more transparent and comprehensible to consumers. The department’s Web site is currently being updated to make it easier for the public to access full inspection reports, which will be written in what she described as a “user-friendly format.” 
The placards that list the department’s restaurant ratings, which restaurateurs are required to publicly display, will include quick response (QR) codes, so consumers can use their smartphones to view the restaurant’s inspection report. Frias has also asked the Yelp Web site, which contains pages with information and consumers’ remarks about restaurants, to include the most recent inspection scores for each restaurant, a practice which Yelp has already adopted for San Francisco eateries. 

In addition, Frias is considering changes in the frequency of inspections. Currently, food establishments are inspected either once, twice, or three times a year. But because of limited staffing levels, some facilities that should have been inspected three times have only been inspected once or twice.

“My goal is to establish an inspection frequency that is based on risk,” she says. “Those establishments that do more food preparation, in advance of service, would get inspected three times a year. Fast-food establishments that are lower-risk, do fast food cooking and order-type foods, those get inspected twice a year. Establishments that are just dealing with prepackaged food or not potentially hazardous food only get inspected once. That way we can actually use our staffing more appropriately to make sure we’re identifying and assessing any potential risk.”

While these initiatives are relatively benign, restaurant owners might be more upset about two other proposed changes. Frias says she wants to work with owners and consumers to determine a new system for rating restaurants and for displaying these ratings on the placards. This system could use letter grades, like those employed by Los Angeles County public health officials, or color codes, or a range of other techniques. 

“There are so many ways of providing consumers information in terms of helping them make an informed decision about restaurants,” Frias explains.

In addition, the Environmental Health Services Division is conducting an audit to determine the number of inspectors it needs to perform its work. Frias thinks she may need two or three additional staffers, but she is awaiting the results of the audit before making any decisions. Pasadena’s general fund does not provide money to cover the costs of food inspections. Instead, these expenses are borne by food establishments, which pay two annual fees to the Health Department: an environmental health plan check and inspection fee, and a food sanitation inspection and permit fee. The audit will determine inspectors’ combined hourly rates “so we can make sure that we are recovering the fees to actually do the inspections,” she says.

Based on the audit, Frias added, “there may be higher or lower [fees] for some people. But we’ll definitely work with all of our stakeholders to let them know and keep them in the loop as we go through this evaluation.” 

A proposed fee hike could prove to be a tough sell. Paul Little, president of the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce, strongly maintains that increased inspection fees are about the last thing restaurant owners want right now.

“This is not a good time for anybody to be raising fees in government, with the confidence level in government so low,” Little says. The Health Department, he adds, needs to do a cost-of-service study to show that their costs are up. “They are going to have a hard time making that case,” says the former Pasadena City Council member.

False read
Little is less critical of proposed changes in the restaurant ratings system. He said the current system is somewhat confusing. “[The Health Department] could do a better job of reporting what the results are,” Little says. “It’s hard to decipher now.” 

But while acknowledging letter grades might allow for greater transparency, Little also questions “the whole notion that at one point [a restaurant] can get that grade and live with it for that period. It creates a false impression of safety, or gives you the wrong idea about a place that’s perfectly safe.”
Said Robin Salzar, owner of Robin’s Wood Fire BBQ in East Pasadena, “At the end of the day, a letter grade or number gives a false sense of security. The score could be 98 today and 89 tomorrow. It’s just a snapshot.” The current inspection process, he adds, “is a very comprehensive approach” in which inspectors focus on several critical areas, such as heat, sanitation and temperature, to determine a restaurant’s ratings. 

Salzar seemed less concerned than some restaurateurs about possible fee hikes. He said some of these fees pay for the city to have its own Health Department, which costs more than having Los Angeles County assume those functions. However, he argued that the higher costs are justified because the city having its own department enables restaurateurs to work more closely and cooperatively with environmental health staffers. Salazar has operated his restaurant for the past 32 years. And, he says, “In that time I’ve known every sanitarian, every manager. When you have a relationship, and can deal with employees on a name-basis, you have a better working relationship. It’s easier to work together.”

Frias says she will work hard to maintain her division’s positive relationships with the city’s businesspeople. But, “There definitely will be some changes,” she says about her proposed initiatives. “I want to be methodical in the changes. I want to make sure I work with those people and those businesses that are going to be impacted by the changes.”

A good fit
Frias, according to her boss, is probably the most qualified person to be appointed manager of the city’s Environmental Health Services Division. “Liza [pronounced Lisa] fixed the county [inspection] system,” says Walsh. “She’s the best fit for her job.” 

After earning her degree in environmental and occupational health from California State University, Northridge, Frias worked for the Environmental Health Division of LA County’s Public Health Department. She assumed various responsibilities during her 13 years there, including conducting inspections, helping to develop the county’s restaurant inspection grading system, training environmental healt1h specialists and overseeing the county’s food and milk program. 

While with the county, she was, by her own description, “one of the primary authors” of the California Retail Food Code, the law regulating the safety of the state’s food establishments.  

In 2004, Frias became the director of safety for Albertson grocery stores. In this position she made sure that stores in seven states complied with state food codes and the FDA’s Model Code, which provides guidance to states, cities and other entities charged with food regulation. During her nine years with the company, she says, “I made sure all of the products being sold in our stores were safe, and that all of our employees that were handling the food were handling it safely.”

Frias is also actively involved in two food safety organizations. One is the Conference for Food Protection, a national group in which representatives of federal government agencies, such as the FDA, the US Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meet with regulators, food industry officials and consumers to establish standards for food safety. The other is the California Retail Food Safety Coalition, which brings together representatives from all of the state’s county and city health departments and the food industry to discuss needed changes in state food safety law.

“One of the things I truly believe in is collaboration,” says Frias. “And I think that my coming to the city of Pasadena brings a unique experience because I can bring my private industry experience into government and really understand how we partner and collaborate together because we do have a mutual goal.

“And our mutual goal is to work together to make sure no one gets sick,” she says. “We want to make sure that when people come to our pools, our pools are safe. When they come to visit or stay at hotels and motels they won’t have concerns with respect to bedbugs or cockroaches or sanitation issues. So it is truly of mutual benefit for everybody that we work together.” 

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