LAWRENCEVILLE - Caryn Vang wears a badge with the county's name on it, but she's not protecting Gwinnett from the typical bad guy. The health inspector is fighting other miscreants - bacteria, mold and dirt.
Monday through Friday Vang starts her day visiting local restaurants' and business' kitchens in an effort to keep eating establishments up to county and state health standards.
Armed with a food thermometer, alcohol swabs, a laptop, plastic gloves and an official score sheet, Vang carefully examines kitchens, making sure raw meats are kept at a frigid 41 degrees or below, silverware is stored properly and dishwashers are being run with the right ratio of chemicals to water.
"You'd be surprised of the amount of people who are oblivious to food safety and temperature," Vang said.
Restaurants are inspected twice a year and all inspections are unannounced, giving Vang and other inspectors the chance to see what a typical day is like for the restaurant.
Inspecting approximately 10 to 12 restaurants a week, Vang said she's seen a lot of odd and stomach-churning things in her time as an inspector in Gwinnett County.
"The worst thing I've seen in the last month was some celery sitting below a tray of raw meat. The celery was covered in the meat's juice," Vang said. "Yeah, they had been using the celery until I made them throw it away."
Vang said food contamination, like the celery and the raw meat, could cause serious illness to someone who consumes the food.
The inspector said she's also seen some out-of-this-world foods. Vang said she's often checking for exotic meats that ethnic restaurants might be serving, meats that are often illegal for use in the United States.
"Some places are slaughtering their own animals and that's where you have to look to see if the meat still has hair. If the meat is approved by the FDA it won't have any hair or feathers," Vang said. "Bush meat, or monkey meat, is common among African restaurants, so I've seen that. But we're trying to eliminate those things."
In addition to inspecting the actual foods, Vang said she, and other inspectors, are looking at the practices of the cooks and kitchen employees, looking for things like hand washing.
"Washing hands in a restaurant is invaluable to someone else's health in a restaurant," Vang said.
The Gwinnett health inspector said she's also looking to make sure sinks are available in the kitchen and bathrooms and that they are complete with plenty of soap, paper towels and hot water.
At the end of each inspection, which Vang said usually takes about an hour, she calculates a score for the restaurant, writing it on an inspection report, which must then be posted in plain view for customers.
Subtracting marks for improper practices, Vang works on a 100-point scale.
"Above an 85 is a passing score and is generally a safe place to eat," Vang said. "Below an 85 automatically qualifies for a recheck and a $50 fee for me to come back."
If a restaurant scores below an 85, Vang said it's given a few days, usually about three, to fix the problem before the inspector comes back. Severe violations, such as unapproved foods or pest infestation could lead to the revoking of the restaurant's license.
With about 2,300 restaurants in Gwinnett County to inspect, Vang said there are nine active inspectors and each sees both good and bad restaurants.
While Vang said she could not comment on particular restaurants to try or avoid, she said Gwinnett County residents and other restaurant goers can visit www.gwinnetthealth.com to look at restaurant inspection scores.
"(Restaurants') responsibility is to know the code and follow the code," Vang said. "It's not just for us to preach orders at them. Most people are very hesitant to read such a long document, but it is something they need to know."
Having inspected a number of restaurants in the year that she's been with Gwinnett County, she said she doesn't eat out.
"I don't eat out at all," Vang said. "I haven't eaten out in a restaurant in probably a good year or so. I'm a vegetarian so that makes it hard for me, plus I can avoid any problems by cooking at home."
Vang said anyone who notices or experiences a problem, like poor sanitation, pests or food poisoning, at a restaurant in the county can call Gwinnett County Environmental Health at 770-963-5132 and issuing a complaint.
"Our goal is to keep restaurants safe for customers," Vang said.
SideBar: At a glance
Deciphering an inspection report:
n 85 or higher is passing score, the closer to 100 (a perfect score) the better
' A score below 85 calls for an automatic recheck and $50 fee for the restaurant
' Inspector comments are written at the bottom of the inspection report
n Category I Violations (Hazardous Items) are some of the most crucial
' Repeat violators or restaurants with extremely unsanitary conditions could face closure
' Restaurants must post its score, if you don't see it, ask for it
n Food service complaints can be made to Gwinnett County Environmental Health at 770-963-5132