Jack Be Nimble 

Food, glorious food ... E. coli and doughnuts. While we're in the mood, cockroaches and rodents.

Remember E. coli? The potentially deadly bacteria nearly destroyed the Jack in the Box franchise after undercooked beef patties allegedly killed four customers, made hundreds of others sick, and spawned a thousand tasteless jokes. Jack in the Box and its corporate parent in San Diego, Foodmaker Inc., wound up paying out millions to settle claims with the bad-burger survivors and millions more to angry franchisees.

Given the fast-food chain's past troubles, Contra Costa County health officials were understandably concerned when a woman reported being hospitalized with E. coli poisoning for five days in September after eating at the Jack in the Box in San Pablo. She allegedly ate an egg roll with sweet and sour sauce, chicken pieces, buttermilk sauce, and freedom fries.

When health inspector Joe Doser went out to the San Pablo outlet, owner Deepak Mehta insisted that the woman couldn't have gotten sick from eating at his Jack in the Box. Doser then asked for a demonstration of how the restaurant prepares its chicken pieces and egg rolls.

After Doser got his cooking demo, he measured the internal temperature of the chicken pieces at 109 degrees and 135 degrees for the egg rolls -- well below the health department's reheating standard of 165 degrees. But this in no way confirmed that the woman got E. coli from Mehta's franchise. In fact, it's doubtful that she did.

As the Center for Disease Control notes, most reported E. coli illnesses have been associated with eating contaminated ground beef that's been undercooked. Brian Luscombe, a Jack in the Box spokesman, confidently asserts that there is no way the woman contracted E. coli from eating the precooked chicken pieces and egg rolls. And the county was unable to confirm the woman's complaint. Nevertheless, she retained attorney Matthew Siegel, a former Berkeley Rent Board member, and contemplated suing Jack in the Box after the incident. Siegel says that he has dropped the case, which Feeder takes to mean that it isn't a slam dunk.

But the E. coli scare has created some tension between CoCo health officials and Jack in the Box over its food-prep practices. Initially, employees at the San Pablo franchise said they cooked chicken pieces and egg rolls and "hot-held" them. This practice would require them to keep the food being held for later consumption at 165 degrees internally. When the folks from corporate got involved, however, they assured the county that Jack in the Box reheats and serves its precooked frozen products right away. And state law doesn't require restaurants to abide by the 165-degree standard if they reheat and serve immediately.

Still, county enviro health specialist Richard Lee sent Jack in the Box a brief letter two weeks ago to recommend the chain reheat its precooked products to 165 degrees. CoCo officials don't much like the chain's vague "palatability" standard for reheating, and Doser had suggested Lee write the letter to cover the county's butt if anything goes wrong in the future. Jack in the Box's Luscombe says that the chain's preparation methods are totally safe. He adds that reheating an egg roll to 165 degrees would scald someone's mouth. Hmmm. Sounds like a lawsuit.

What Would Homer Do?

Speaking of the food cops, CoCo County health officials shut down the Krispy Kreme in Concord's Willows Shopping Center a couple weeks ago because the doughnut factory had no running hot water (and hadn't for a "few" days). No illnesses were reported, but the franchise had to close its doors for a total of fourteen hours until store managers could get the water heater fixed.

The real tragedy for Homer Simpson types is that the Concord store had to throw away nearly ten thousand delicious doughnuts made earlier that day. Quipped one cheeky inspector: "Think of all those hungry cops out there who couldn't get doughnuts for a day."

The Ricecapades

But hey, there's always sushi, right?

Ichiban Japanese restaurant in downtown Berkeley is a popular spot for UC Berkeley students. It's also a regular pit stop for city restaurant inspectors, who have cited the place repeatedly for serious health violations in recent years, such as a rat infestation two years ago that led a customer to complain she could hear a critter running on the beam over the sushi bar (see feature "Food for Thought," 9/18/02). Ichiban has always been allowed to stay open, though, because its managers fix things just enough to appease the city's health department, which prefers to educate rather than punish. But inspectors are now talking tough after a Cal graduate student wrote the city about a recent unpleasant experience at the eatery.

The student, Sue Yeon Choi, claims she was sitting across from the kitchen and had a clear view of steamed rice that had fallen on the floor being swept with plates and a broom into a big bowl. The chef, Choi says, didn't throw away the rice, but instead added seasonings to it. The student told the waitress she was leaving because of what she'd just seen happen in the kitchen. Choi says in her letter that the waitress told her with a straight face: "Oh, that's not for you, it's for sushi for the other people. You ordered sashimi."

A health inspector paid a surprise visit to the restaurant one day later. The manager insisted that the dropped rice had been thrown away and not re-served. But the inspector went ahead and checked the place while he was there and noted nine health violations. The health department then sent a warning letter to Ichiban on January 26 threatening to suspend its permit "if the trend of health code violations continues." Of course, the department also threatened to shut Ichiban down two years ago if it didn't get rid of the rats. In fairness, Ichiban did get rid of the rats. And the following year the rodents were replaced by tasty cockroaches.

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