“I really like talking to the owners and operators,” says Gila County Environmental Health Specialist Mike Lemon of his work doing health inspections for restaurants.
“I enjoy learning about their businesses. I try to understand life from their point of view.”
Lemon — a Registered Sanitarian — has been doing this sort of work for 41 years, the past eight of which have been with Gila County.
With the rigorous academic and certification requirements, Lemon says he has to know “at least a little about almost everything.”
He’s probably most widely known for his required twice-yearly restaurant inspections. Indeed, that’s how he and his counterpart in Globe spend the bulk of their time.
However, he also performs inspections required by state health code for other sites, such as pools, children’s camps, and hotels. The state of Arizona delegates the authority to the counties to enforce the health code.
Although they’re required to show up unannounced, “we’re not trying to catch someone doing something,” stresses Lemon. “I don’t want people to be afraid of me. I want them to trust me.”
Lemon spends about an hour on average at an inspection and he says that the majority of that time is spent talking with the owner or manager of the establishment.
He likens himself to a consultant for the businesses and wants his meetings with them to be discussions, not just going down a checklist and checking things off.
“We seem to win more friends that way than coming in with a big hammer,” he says.
When Lemon is talking about preventing or investigating possible food-borne illness, he frequently uses the phrase “the flow of food.” One of the things he looks at and asks questions about while doing an inspection is where food travels and how it’s handled from when it comes in the door to when it arrives on customers’ plates.
Something he really loves about doing his job in Gila County is that the majority of restaurants that he works with are locally owned, mom and pop shops. “The owner is there all the time,” says Lemon. “They’re really invested in their business.”
Across the board, he works with owners and managers to remedy critical violations right away and is frank about the potential negative, long-term impact that an outbreak of food-borne illness could have on their business.
The health code identifies critical violations that lead directly to a food-borne illness. Depending on the type of critical violation, it may be required to be fixed before Lemon leaves the establishment or within 24 hours, for example.
If he were to find food on a steam table that was below the safe temperature, it would need to be corrected right away. If he found a refrigerator that wasn’t holding a low enough temperature, it would likely need to be emptied and repaired within 24 hours.
“What I like about Gila County is it’s a small-town environment — very pro-business,” says Lemon.
He’s proud that he’s able to have a part in supporting economic development in Gila County by trying to help make sure folks comply with the health code.
“We’re really trying to help businesses survive,” says Lemon.