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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Ready to Dine Out? Think Again!

By: Luz Garcia

With the busy lifestyle that America has adopted, eating in restaurants has become more common. The National Restaurant Association, stated that this year the industry projection sales amounted to $580 billion dollars, compared to only $42 billion back in 1970.  Although it is convenient when in a rush, it’s not always the best choice for your health. Unfortunately when you eat food prepared elsewhere other than in your own home, you lose the certainty that the meal has been prepared in a clean area, in adequate conditions. Although most of us hope that that is the case, it isn’t always so.

Fortunately, there are ways to check if your favorite restaurant complies with the requirements posed by the departments of health and the food and drug administration. Under the Freedom of Information Act, one can easily request copies of their health inspections and other useful public records. Such documents were requested for a very popular restaurant located in the heart of the Pilsen neighborhood. The findings were surprising.

Emeterio Gurierrez established Nuevo Leon Restaurant on March 15, 1962. The establishment has since been visited by hundreds of families, fanatics of their Mexican style breakfast and dinner dishes, like the “Machado con Huevo,” a breakfast dish that incorporates seasoned shredded steak scrambled with egg. Although the restaurant has positive reviews, “Every time I go to Pilsen, Nuevo Leon is always a must restaurant to go to. The place has a really authentic feel…” wrote Suran Y. from Champaign Illinois on Yelp, a web-site especially made for reviews. There are also reviews like the one posted by Chicago local, Christine F.  “Cockroaches. That sums up my experience at Nuevo Leon.” And according to what was acquired from the documents, those pests are one of Nuevo Leon’s biggest issues. 

According to the most recent health inspection on September 22, 2010, provided by the Chicago Department of Public Health, Nuevo Leon has had a number of compliance, food maintenance, and food protection violations. However, the insect and rodent control violations seem to be the most serious. This is a reoccurring issue for Nuevo Leon. Citations due to the same problems can be found in inspection reports that date back to October of 2008. Pest control concerns have caused the restaurant to fail many inspections and to only pass some conditionally.  

The most recent complaint from the last inspection in September states the following; “Infested with roaches, at this time I observed twelve live roaches on premises in food prep area. Also observed twenty fruit flies in rear storage area.  Instructed to work with pest control companies to control problem. Citations issued at this time. Findings discussed with area supervisor.” Needless to say, Nuevo Leon failed that inspection as well.

“Why hasn’t the place been shut down?” Asked Anabel Ruiz, 20, a customer who visits Nuevo Leon a few times a year. Although, the restaurant has failed many inspections due to this problem, it would be unfair to say that it is because of negligence. One week later after the September inspection, the place was re-inspected and showed to comply with all the requirements.  Nuevo Leon was also instructed to seal opening in the walls and the ceiling that posed threats of pest harborage, “we took care of that…they [inspectors] came in four days after and they approved” said Daniel Gutierrez, who took over ownership from his father, and as far as the pest control issues Gutierrez declared, “We have pest control. They come every two weeks”.  It’s worth mentioning that in 2008, when pest control problems showed up during the inspections, the reports stated that “Daniel enrolled in a food service sanitation class and food service educational seminars…” 

It is clear that Gutierrez is working to maintain his establishment in compliance with the Health Department. So why do these issues continue to exist? “You also have to look at the Streets and Sanitation Department. They have to keep our alleys clean,” said Gutierrez. But according to Gutierrez, the alleys are not his only problem. Unhappy customers also have an effect, “The problem with businesses, any minor complaint that a customer has, there’s a number and they call the Health Department. If they call, they [inspectors] have to come and check, even if it is not true. I have a lot of that, just to make things difficult for me,” he said. Not only that but he also says that it is very difficult to pass inspections of this sort with a 100 percent. As claimed by Gutierrez any small thing, as small as a drip of water from a faucet results in a violation.

The restaurant industry has been growing at a rapid rate throughout the years, meaning more and more people are eating out everyday. Allergies from cross contamination, food poisoning from poorly cleaned or expired food, vermin, salmonella, norovirus, and pesticides are just a few of the hazards that one exposes themselves to when deciding to eat in a public restaurant. Even though restaurants are required to go through Health Inspections about twice a year. It is never guaranteed that the place will be clean in the time between the next inspection. That is where consumer responsibility comes into play. As consumers, one should take initiative to carefully review a place before dining in it, and keeping the visits to a minimum.  The only way to be sure that what you’re eating is safe, is when you prepare it yourself. By opting for this approach, not only are you eating healthier meals in the comfort of your own home but the expense becomes much less and you won’t have to ask yourself, “to eat? or not to eat?”

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