Restaurant inspection update: Buffet-line rodents, moldy veggies and spoiled shrimp

By: - October 26, 2022 5:27 pm

El Chero Restaurante, located at 1832 E. Hubbell Ave. in Des Moines was recently cited for 20 serious “risk factor” violations by state inspectors and the owner agreed to temporarily close the restaurant. It reopened a day later after improvements were verified by the state. (Photo via Google Earth)

State and county food inspectors have cited Iowa restaurants and grocery stores for hundreds of food-safety violations this past month, including spoiled shrimp and rodent droppings found on one eatery’s buffet line.

The inspectors also found fly infestations, moldy cabbage, rodent droppings, refrigerated cow intestines, pieces of a disposable glove mixed into a chicken dish, and fish that had been pulled from Saylorville Lake by a restaurant employee.

A Des Moines restaurant agreed to close so that its sanitizing capabilities could be improved and then verified by the state before reopening.

The findings are reported by the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals, which handles food-establishment inspections at the state level. Listed below are some of the more serious findings that stem from inspections at Iowa restaurants, stores, schools, hospitals and other businesses over the past four weeks.

The state inspections department reminds the public that their reports are a “snapshot” in time, and violations are often corrected on the spot before the inspector leaves the establishment. For a more complete list of all inspections, along with additional details on each of the inspections listed below, visit the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals’ website.

Vietnam Café, 3800 Merle Hay Road, Des Moines – During an Oct. 10 visit, an inspector noted that the restaurant had no certified food protection manager on staff as required. The inspector inquired about two fish in an unmarked steel pan and learned that they had been caught at nearby Saylorville Lake by a worker or one of their family. The fish was then discarded.

Raw beef was observed stored over a bucket of noodles; cooked, breaded chicken was stored in an unsanitary cardboard box intended for raw chicken; meats and other items that were reported to have been cooked the day before had no date markings on them; animal broths were left out at room temperature for two hours; utensils were being washed but not sanitized; and access to the handwashing sink was obstructed.

The restaurant was last inspected in 2016, according to DIA’s online database of restaurant inspections.

El Pollo Catracho, 4100 S.E. 14th St., Des Moines – During an Oct. 25 visit, an inspector determined the staff had “not demonstrated knowledge” of food time-and-temperature controls to ensure safety.

Cooked rice and vegetables that were holding at 61 degrees on a hot table had to be discarded; a large batch of beans made the previous day was holding at 44 degrees in a cooler and had to be discarded; cooked chicken was holding at 121 degrees on a shelf; there was chicken in a glass case holding at 105 degrees; and cooked steak was sitting in a pan on a counter at 101 degrees.

The inspector also noted there was no thermometer on the premises. Raw shell eggs were stored above cooked chicken and ready-to-eat items, and bulk containers of dry goods were not labeled.

According to DIA records, the restaurant’s most recent prior inspection was in 2018. At the time of the Oct. 25 visit, the inspector observed the restaurant had been operating as a Risk Level 3, or medium risk, establishment, and should be treated as a Risk Level 4, or high risk, establishment considering the way it currently prepares food.

El Chero Restaurant, 1832 E. Hubbell Ave., Des Moines – During an Oct. 24 visit, an inspector cited the restaurant for 20 serious “risk factor” violations, an unusually high number, and numerous food items had to be discarded during the inspection.

The inspector concluded, based on the “hazards inherent to the firm’s operation,” the restaurant staff lacked knowledge of federal food-safety requirements, and the owner agreed to temporarily close the restaurant. The restaurant did not have a certified food protection manager on staff as required, and workers could not correctly answer questions regarding time-and-temperature controls intended to ensure food safety.

The inspector noted that employee meals were stored alongside food containers and ingredients used for customers’ orders; a horchata mixture that was made from scratch was observed cooling on the kitchen floor with pieces of aluminum foil within it; raw beef was stored above cut cabbage, cooked meats and containers of cooked rice; raw chicken was stored directly on top of a container of red sauce; multiple containers of beans and drink mixtures were stored throughout the kitchen without lids or any coverings; and plantains were stored on a cart with multiple soiled utensils and meat slicers.

Also, fried chicken was holding at 85 degrees; containers of cooked rice were holding at 58 degrees seven hours after preparation; large plastic buckets of slaw that was made three days earlier were measured at 45 degrees; red sauce was hot-holding at 121 degrees and had to be reheated to 165 degrees; and multiple other foods — including cooked beans, cooked meat, shredded cheese, a cheese and spinach mixture, pico de gallo and rice — were stored in the kitchen without any temperature control, with some measuring in the 70- to 80-degree range.

In addition, many foods were not marked with either preparation or opening dates, and a chicharron mixture was dated Oct. 10, two weeks before the inspection. Also, the three-compartment sink used for sanitizing dishware was in disrepair with one basin unable to hold water, which meant the restaurant was unable to sanitize equipment, utensils, and other food-contact surfaces. The inspector also reported that multiple foods were cooling at room temperature, including sauces that were left out in large plastic buckets.

The inspector concluded that the establishment did not have enough refrigeration units to support the full scope of its food-service operation. The restaurant agreed to use ice baths to temporarily improve its food-cooling and cold-holding capabilities.

The inspector also observed heads of cabbage, an uncovered container of beans and other food items being “stored directly on the ground.”  Also, the restaurant’s to-go containers were “visibly soiled with accumulated dirt and debris.”

The restaurant agreed to close so that its sanitizing capabilities could be improved and then verified before reopening. The inspector returned the next day and approved the restaurant’s reopening.

McDonald’s, 4444 1st N.E. Ave., Cedar Rapids – During an Oct. 24 visit, an inspector noted that the spatulas used for turning hamburgers were stored at room temperature with debris on them. Also, shredded lettuce, minced garlic and other condiments had no date and time markings on them and had to be discarded.

In addition, the handwashing sink was inoperable and leaking, and the dishwasher was “beeping non-stop” due to an alarm indicating a low temperature of 103 degrees. The visit was in response to two complaints, which the inspector didn’t describe in his report. The report does not indicate whether the complaints were substantiated.

El Pollo Ranchero, 1960 Grand Ave., West Des Moines – During an Oct. 21 visit, an inspector noted that there was no certified food protection manager on staff, although the business had agreed the previous March to have one on staff by Sept. 20. The inspector gave the owner an additional seven months, until May 2023, to have on staff at least one certified food protection manager.

In her report, the inspector said she observed an employee preparing burritos with his or her bare hands, and so the food was discarded. Also, a pan of refried beans that had been placed in a cooler the day before was still holding at 48 degrees and had to be discarded.

The inspector also noted that the food inside one cooler, including beans and chicken, was not dated. In addition, the water to the handwashing sink had been turned off, and there were beans cooling in large, deep pots that were unable to reach 41 degrees within six hours and had to be discarded.

Hy-Vee, College Square Mall, 6301 University Ave., Cedar Falls – During an Oct. 21 visit, an inspector observed an employee in the produce section preparing leaf lettuce without wearing gloves; found taco meat and chili holding at 110 degrees on a steam table in the kitchen; and found sweet-and-sour chicken in the Chinese Food area holding at 85 degrees. The chicken was discarded.

The inspector also made note of pancake batter and egg mixtures that were sitting out at room temperature and holding at 55 degrees. In addition, the bamboo roller wrap used in the sushi area was not changed every four hours as required and the egg mixer in the kitchen was not being cleaned every four hours.

Also, the hot water in the handwashing sink in the kitchen area did not reach 100 degrees as required, and an employee was unable to correctly calibrate the pH meter used to ensure the safe preparation of sushi. The store was not following the prescribed cooling procedures used for sushi and the employee in that area did not appear to have been trained in Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point, or HACCP, procedures, the inspector reported.

The inspection was in response to a non-illness complaint, which the inspector didn’t describe in her report. “No issues with food protection were found and complaint is closed as unverifiable,” the inspector reported.

She added that the store was not in compliance with the company’s own HACCP policies and stated that she discussed with the manager the need for further training of sushi employees.

Center Grove Orchard, 32855 610th Ave., Cambridge – During an Oct. 18 visit, an inspector cited the establishment for 12 serious “risk-factor” violations. The business was preparing house-made apple butter, apple sauce and apple preserves without verifying the pH or soluble solids of the products as required. In response to the inspector’s concerns, the staff pulled the apple butter and apple preserves from the sales floor and promised not to make any more apple sauce until they obtained the necessary materials to verify the pH of the product.

The inspector concluded that the person in charge at the orchard was unable to demonstrate their duties related to unadulterated foods, cold-holding temperatures and the proper sanitizing of equipment. The business was repackaging apple juice in one of the walk-in coolers with no nearby handwashing sink, and the handwashing sink used in the kettle-corn area was not functional.

Also, meat that bore the label “not for sale” was stored in a walk-in freezer and was apparently for the personal use of the staff; peanut butter “with a dead fly in the product” was found; raw burgers were stored above macaroni and cheese inside a cooler; and the three-compartment sinks in two separate areas were not properly sanitizing dishware.

The inspector also reported the soda-dispensing nozzles were stored in a solution that had dead flies floating in it; flies were observed in the bakery area, landing on a wooden spoon that was being used to mix apples; and several products including pulled pork, lettuce, raw chicken, soft-serve ice cream and hot dogs were in cold-holding at a temperature above the maximum 41 degrees.

“Numerous flies were observed throughout all buildings on the premises,” the inspector reported, and dead files were observed throughout the establishment on the floor and counters. The visit was in response to a non-illness complaint that pertained to pest control and food derived from unsafe sources. The complaint was deemed verified. The orchard’s most recent prior inspection was in October 2020.

Grocery y Tortilleria La Vecindad, 505 N. 3rd Ave., Marshalltown – During an Oct. 18 visit, inspectors noted that the store and restaurant had added bakery and tortilla production services since the last inspection, which was in 2018, and had done so without prior approval.

The inspector cited the business for failing to have a certified food protection manager on staff as required and noted that the numerous risk-factor violations and failure to implement safe food-handling practices was a concern.

In the meat department display case and walk-in cooler, the inspector found raw chicken stored over chorizo, raw beef stored over chopped tomato and lime juice, and raw eggs and beef stored over sauces and cheese and cooked meats. In the restaurant’s walk-in cooler, bags of cooked beef were holding at 59 degrees; there were beans in the steam table holding at 118 degrees; and there were cooked chickens in a self-service case for customers that were holding at 127 degrees.

The inspector said while the business was washing and rinsing dishes, there was no consistent and approved method of sanitizing dishes and equipment. There were no handwashing sinks in the bakery food-prep area or in the restaurant’s kitchen-production area. The hot-holding and cold-holding equipment throughout the establishment lacked thermometers to ensure the food was held at safe temperatures, and there was no probe-type food thermometer om the premises.

Also, the food prepared and packaged on the premises – such as gelatins, salsas and baked goods – were not labeled with any ingredients, allergens or date markings. Opened, bulk bags of beans and spices were not covered or closed while in storage, and buckets of food were being stored on the floor of a cooler and elsewhere. The business was also found to be “reusing items, like detergent buckets and single-use storage containers, for food storage,” the inspector reported.

El Dorado Mexican Restaurant, 1327 Sunset Dr., Norwalk – After an Oct. 17 inspection, an inspector noted that he had discussed “gnat control” with management, adding that the pests “were observed but not in unusually large quantities, dead or alive, at inspection.”

The inspector cited the business for a lack of handwashing facilities, although the report is unclear as to the precise nature of the issue. Also, cooked chicken was being held at 113 degrees and had to be discarded; a non-approved gnat spray was being used in the facility; there were no food thermometers available; there were no chlorine test strips on hand to ensure proper sanitizing; and the restaurant was operating without a valid food-service license.

The visit was in response to an illness complaint. The inspector did not describe the nature of the complaint but reported that it was unverifiable.

Grand China, 116 E. 1st St., Monticello – During an Oct. 14 visit, an inspector noted the lack of sanitizing solution to wipe down work surfaces. He also noted the evidence of pests; the dishwashing machine not operating within acceptable sanitizer and temperature ranges; cooked chicken that was left sitting out at room temperature during lunch service; and workers not washing their hands when coming off break to work with food.

In addition, there was no currently certified food protection manager on staff and prepared food items were not date-marked to ensure safety. Food graters and other kitchen tools were stored in a container but were soiled, and rodent droppings were observed in the kitchen. In addition, 75% of the walk-in cooler’s steel walls were corroded.

All Pho You, 4120 University Ave., Des Moines – During an Oct. 13 visit, an inspector noted that the person in charge, and the other staff, were unable to demonstrate or explain how three-basin sink should be used to sanitize dishes and equipment. “Not able to explain when to wash,” the inspector reported.

Workers were observed washing their hands with gloves on, then returning to the food-production line with those same gloves. Other workers were seen entering the building and then beginning to handle food and cut meat without washing their hands. The handwashing sink was obstructed by a large stack of buckets and there was no hand soap on the premises.

The business had been operating without a valid license since July, when ownership changed.

International Buffet, 901 E. Euclid Ave., Des Moines – During an Oct. 5 visit, an inspector noted there was no certified food protection manager on staff as required. Also, the inspector reported that the person in charge was unable to fulfill their duties as evidenced by the “significance and extent of violations” found.

The inspector reported that staff routinely failed to wash their hands even after working with raw chicken and raw fish. At the buffet line, a cooked dish with shrimp, imitation crab, and vegetables was “visibly adulterated with what appeared to be spoilage,” the inspector reported. Also, the salt shakers on dining room tables were soiled inside with what “appeared to be foreign debris.”

In a reach-in cooler, the inspector found a container of chicken with remnants of a disposable glove mixed into the food. Inside one cooler, an open package of raw steaks was directly stacked on top a container of a cooked tofu dish and wonton wrappers.

Also, an uncovered container of raw prawns was stored above an uncovered container of cooked noodles, and cooked seafood was comingled with raw seafood inside the same container. Cooked broccoli beef was reheated only to 132 degrees and orange chicken reheated to 140 degrees until the inspector intervened, so both items could be reheated to the minimum of 165 degrees.

On the buffet line, the inspector measured the General Tso chicken at 120 degrees; cooked chicken was measured at 116 degrees; cooked mushrooms were holding at 100 degrees; and chicken wings were holding at 87 degrees. Those foods, along with several others, had to be pulled from the buffet line and reheated to at least 165 degrees.

Inside a food preparation cooler, raw shrimp was being held at 50 degrees, as was a container of mixed raw and cooked seafood. In the cold-food area of the buffet line, cucumbers, lettuce and tomato salad were measured at 56 to 59 degrees and had to be discarded. Foods throughout the restaurant were not marked with their dates of preparation or opening dates.

Also, the dishwashing machine had no detectable level of sanitizing solution; the interior nozzles and ice chute of the soda fountain and the ice machine were visibly soiled with an accumulation of debris; food-container lids stored as “clean” were heavily soiled with accumulated debris; one of the ovens was heavily soiled; the temperature controls on the buffet line were not functioning adequately; there was water pooling on the floor behind a stove; and a grease trap was overflowing with grease pooling on the floor.

In addition, multiple flying insects, including flies and gnats, were observed throughout the restaurant, and were concentrated around the dining room’s beverage station and the kitchen’s soda fountain. The inspector also found rodent droppings soiling a table used to store dry goods, and the underside interior of the buffet tables were visibly soiled with what appeared to be rodent droppings.

Also, a dead rodent was found behind a water heater; the area around the soda fountain in the dining room was heavily soiled with debris, as were the lids of soy sauce buckets in the kitchen; and the floors and ceilings throughout the facility – including the ceiling directly above the buffet lines – were soiled with accumulated debris.

The visit was in response to a non-illness complaint concerning general facility sanitation. The complaint was deemed verified. Th restaurant was given until April 2023 to have all persons in charge become certified food protection managers.

County Line Café, 10894 E. County Line Road, Des Moines – During an Oct. 4 visit, an inspector cited the restaurant for employees failing to wash their hands; employees eating in the food-preparation area; cooked meats having no date markings; no handwashing sink; multiple unapproved pesticides stored throughout the kitchen; the use of scented bleach as a sanitizing agent; failure to secure regulatory approval for a change in the scope of kitchen services; and large containers of cooked meat that were being cooled without the equipment necessary to ensure food safety.

The inspector also reported a large number of dead flies in the kitchen and cited the business for the lack of a sink designated for cleaning floor mops.

The inspector reported that two years ago, in 2020, the business moved its kitchen and began a change in its operations without the necessary regulatory approval. The kitchen area, the inspector said, could not be approved in part because of the lack of a handwashing sink.

The restaurant was informed that it needed to have fire department approval for full approval of the 2020 remodeling and change in scope of operations. The restaurant was last inspected in 2018, according to DIA records.

La Finca, 916 W. 2nd St., Davenport – During an Oct. 4 visit, an inspector reported that the person in charge of the restaurant “was unaware of how to sanitize, or of the need to.”  The inspector also noted there was no certified food protection manager on staff as required.

Containers of cheesecake stored in a desert cooler had no label of any kind to indicate their origin; a pan of cow intestines that was placed in the cooler 11 hours earlier was still holding at 89 degrees and had to be discarded, which was a repeat violation; foods throughout the restaurant had no date markings, which was a repeat violation; and multiple containers of house-made sauces had expiration dates beyond the maximum seven days or had inaccurate dates on them, with one worker telling the inspector the staff just “wrote numbers” on the food.

In addition, no sanitizing was taking place in the dishwashing process; the handwashing sink was being used to clean utensils, which was a repeat violation; there were no food thermometers in the establishment; and dishes were being washed in the mop sink. Also, the inspector reported that the “presence of cockroach-like insects was detected in the kitchen.”

Tic Toc, 600 17th N.E. St., Cedar Rapids – During an Oct. 4 visit, an inspector noted that an “employee does not know the hot-holding and cooking temperature of the hamburger.” The inspector also noted that there was no certified food protection manager with supervisory responsibilities employed by the restaurant.

The inspector observed one employee donning gloves and then washing their hands and saw a cook eating over food-contact surfaces in the kitchen. The inspector also reported that the staff was using soiled knives left on a cutting board by workers on a prior shift.

Hollandaise sauce and gravy were being kept at temperatures below 120 degrees, and vinegar sauce that should have been refrigerated was stored at room temperature. Also, the ice machine was soiled with pink debris around the inside.

Tavern Blue, 805 2nd St., Coralville – During a Sept. 30 visit, the restaurant was cited for not having a person in charge certified as a food protection manager as required. The inspector gave the restaurant until March 30, 2023, to come into compliance with that requirement. The inspector reported that employees were unable to answer questions about proper cold-holding, hot-holding, reheating, cooling and cooking temperatures.

One worker was seen handling raw hamburger and switching to another task without first removing their gloves and washing their hands. The restaurant was hot-holding bacon at 97 degrees rather than 135 degrees or above. Also, diced tomatoes on the salad line were measured at above the 41-degree maximum, and chocolate sauce that required refrigeration was stored at room temperature.

In addition, several house-made foods lacked labeling as to their contents or date of preparation; a food slicer that was in storage and had not been used that day had been put away with a buildup of dried food on it; and the most recent inspection report was not posted for public viewing.

888 Restaurant-Chinese Food, 809 Wheeler St., Ames – During a Sept. 27 visit, an inspector noted that there were two containers of lemons that appeared to have a mold-like substance growing on them, and raw chicken was stored above ready-to-eat foods inside the walk-in cooler.

Also, food inside the coolers was not date-marked and the handwashing sink was full of gloves and other products. In addition, the inspector found chicken that was thawing in a sink in a reservoir of stagnant water. The restaurant’s most recent prior inspection was in June 2017, according to DIA records.

Tommy’s Café, 916 W. 3rd St., Davenport – During a Sept. 22 visit, an inspector noted “mouse-like droppings” throughout the restaurant, including the front area near the doughnut racks and the dry storage area near the doughnut-prep room – a repeat violation.

The inspector also noted raw eggs stored above ready-to-eat biscuits, which was a repeat violation; a buildup of food debris in the walk-in cooler, standing refrigerator and freezer, as well as the refrigerator in the doughnut-frying room. The meat slicer, onion dicer, and waffle maker all had excess buildup and leftover food debris, the inspector reported.

In addition, several food items in the refrigerator – including salads, shredded beef and sauce – were stored without any date-markings. The inspector also noted that the restaurant had been operating on a food-establishment license that expired in April 2021.

Joy’s Mongolian Grill, 112 Hayward Ave., Ames – During a Sept. 19 visit, an inspector observed an employee handling raw meats and switching tasks without washing their hands. The inspector also reported finding egg plant and cabbage that each appeared to have a mold-like substance growing on them.

In addition, noodles were stored in water at room temperature and then held at 51 degrees; food in the walk-in cooler and reach-in cooler was not date-marked; the inside of the ice machine was visibly soiled; the staff was only washing and rinsing the dishes, without sanitizing them; there was no thermometer in the reach-in cooler or the walk-in cooler; and there was no thin-tipped, probe-style thermometer on site for checking the temperature of food.

The restaurant’s most recent prior inspection was in December 2017, according to DIA records.

Garcia Pollo y Carne Asada, 2337 Highway E-64, Tama – During a Sept. 17 visit to this food truck, the inspector noted that the business did not have a certified food protection manager on staff. During previous inspections, the owner was advised that he was required to have a certified food protection manager on staff by March of this year. As part of the September inspection, the owner agreed to have a certified food protection manager on staff no later than March 2023.

The inspector also reported that the basin of the handwashing sink was filled with empty beer cans, used paper towels, and dried food debris, and there were no clean paper towels or hand soap available. Also, packages of raw pork loin and raw chorizo were stored over ready-to-eat cheeses, sour cream and tortillas.

At 4:45 p.m., the inspector noted, the countertops where foods are assembled had not been cleaned or sanitized since operations began at 9 a.m. In addition, cooked steak pieces were holding at 117 degrees and a bag of shredded cheese for burritos was measured at 78 degrees. A container of sour cream was measured at 81 degrees.

The inspector also made note of a buildup up of food debris on the floors, walls and counters, and found that the food truck’s license was expired.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.

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