The county's restaurant placard system is like a traffic light - green means you're good to go in. Yellow means slow down and think about whether you want to dine here. And red means it's not safe to move past those doors.
(sound of restaurant)
It's Sonia Andrusiak's job to decide which restaurants get what sign.
(sound of suitcase dragging)
She's rolling into Alejandro's Taqueria in downtown Sacramento with a suitcase on wheels. It's filled with the essential tools to uncover and report potential causes for food-borne illness.
ANDRUSIAK: "...Everything from floor walls to ceilings, uh, from cooking temperatures, cooling, thawing, refrigeration temperatures, employee hygiene, handing of specific food items that they're cooking and preparing."
(sound of ice machine)
Andrusiak pokes around the food prep area with a flashlight and what looks like a meat thermometer. She's looking for major food safety violations - conditions that could make people sick. Andrusiak weaves in and out between the cooks and prep stations firing questions. She brings professionalism to nagging.
(audio montage of Andrusiak during inspection)
Taqueria supervisor Luis Barrera takes no offense at Andrusiaks suggestions or questions.
BARRERA: "It's not too pleasant to have an inspection, but that really helps us to do the right thing, just keep everything organized."
He says inspections can be nerve-wracking or overwhelming, but he wants his taqueria to be perfect.
BARRERA: "...Not to be a point of infection for people, because we're eating from the same food, and we want to make it right."
It wasn't long before Andrusiak found rodent droppings under a counter near the cash register. But she wasn't alarmed.
ANDRUSIAK: "No it looks pretty good, I only found two droppings. It looks pretty good overall…"
Later she asked Barrera about the pests.
ANDRUSIAK: Did you catch it in trap or…
BARRERA: Yeah, a glue trap.
ANDRUSIAK: Oh one of those glue traps?
ANDRUSIAK: Was it a little one, or?
She says vermin aren't necessarily a sign of uncleanliness - she just doesn't want to see evidence of them on the food or in the prep area. Her goal is to make food operators feel she is on their side in solving food safety problems.
ANDRUSIAK: "You don't want to come off as this bad cop, you want to be sympathetic, you want to listen to their problems, but at the same time you want to draw this fine line of yes, you're here to enforce these rules and regulations."
(sound of typing)
After the inspection, Andrusiak finds a booth, types her findings and shares them with Barrera.
(sound of Andrusiak talking to Barrera)
Despite the rodent droppings, a station with barely cold meat, a greasy ice machine and cleanser on a food shelf, the taqueria gets a green placard. That's the outcome in the vast majority of her visits. The county says 94% of inspections earn a green placard. Most of the rest get yellow or conditional passes, and fewer than one percent get a red card, she says. That merits a closure.
ANDRUSIAK: "If you see a red, you won't even be able to enter the facility because it's an imminent health threat of some sort. EIther no hot water, sewage backing up, no refrigeration units, vermin infestation, whether it's cockroaches or rodents."
A green placard is not to be confused with an "A" grade... it's 'passing.' A restaurant can have one major violation and minor violations and still get a green. The definition of a major violation comes from what the Centers for Disease Control considers a health hazard. That could be as simple as a lack of soap and paper towels at a handwashing station.
ENRIQUEZ: "We tried our best to focus on very basic food safety principles..."
Alicia Enriquez from the Sacramento County environmental health division calls the program a success.
ENRIQUEZ: "...that message is being communicated during each inspection."
She says the number of complaints of alleged food borne illness has gone down in the past decade. And the county says major food safety violations have gone down by 26% since the placard system started five years ago. What's next? More technology to bring restaurant goers more information.
Sacramento County has a free smart phone app called "Sac Food." There, you can pull up restaurant inspection reports.