Clumps of hair at the bottom of coffee cups and green slime leaking out of meat sandwiches were among the more extreme examples of complaints filed by customers and restaurant employees against food establishments this year.
Other complaints ranged from the minor — hot meals served cold — to seeing an employee vomit into a trash can at a fast food business and then hand a meal to a customer at the drive-through window before washing her hands.
As of the end of August, 126 complaints had been filed this year against establishments in Champaign, Urbana and rest of Champaign County.
The number of complaints, filed with the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, has risen sharply — 30 percent — from the same time period last year, January through August. There were 97 complaints filed during that time in 2013, compared to this year’s 126.
Jim Roberts, environmental health director for the district, said he sees no particular reason for the increase in complaints this year over last year
“Sometimes we receive none, sometimes we receive many,” he said.
Consumers can file a formal complaint with the district in person, over the phone, by email, via an online form or by fax, Roberts said. The online complaint form can be found by clicking “investigating complaints” on the district’s website under the environmental health’s “food safety” webpage. [http://www.c-uphd.org/submit-food-service-complaint.html]
Records of the complaints were obtained by the filing of a Freedom of Information request by CU-CitizenAccess.org .
Complaints included issues with restaurants’ overall cleanliness, unsanitary practices by employees and mice and vermin in the restaurants. Other reports question the quality and freshness of the food served.
Ryan’s in Champaign received the largest number of complaints against a single establishment this year, with five filed against its Anthony Drive location. The complaints included problems with overall cleanliness, employee hygiene and cold temperatures in the restaurant.
Health district food inspectors discussed the complaints with the manager. Inspection records show that the restaurant has not failed an inspection since 2012. A staff member who identified herself as a manager on duty did not wish to comment for this story.
Fast food chains also received multiple complaints this year. McDonald’s restaurants had a total of 10 complaints against their Kirby Avenue, Bloomington Road, and two Neil Street locations in Champaign and their Purnell Drive location in Mahomet. Complaints were also filed for three Hardee’s branches and two Wendy’s branches.
The usual number of days that pass between the date a complaint is filed and its follow-up call or investigation by a district inspector is two to three days. Some months the number of days that could pass could be many as 11.
“When the complaint is received, the health district staff logs it and puts it into a form. It is then routed to the inspector who is assigned to the facility at this calendar year,” Roberts said.
If a complaint is found to be valid, inspectors have several options.
“One thing (inspectors) do is observation,” Roberts said. “Someone may say the temperature of food was not cold enough, and the operator might say it is and we go in, and take a temperature to see. We look for voluntary compliance, and then we may go back and check on (it and) follow up on that in the next inspection.”
Complaint forms show a district inspector may also call the establishment and speak to the manager about the nature of the complaint or perform a routine or re-inspection of the establishment to educate the staff on healthy practice.
Roberts said that a complaint’s abatement time may vary, depending on its nature.
There may be an “immediate course of action depending on the problem, or it might be a time frame where the operator might check up on it,” he said.
However, a complaint may go unaddressed for several months if the customer who left it chooses to remain anonymous. Anonymous complaints are handled at the next regular site inspection, which could be several months after the complaint is filed, according to the district’s website.
“We believe that if you give your name, that this is a complaint you feel is serious,” Roberts said. “Except if we read what is in the complaint that may be associated with illness or something serious, then we will speed up our response.”