While the Pittsburgh International Airport long ago lost its status as a hub for a major airline, the facility more recently has become a standout in a more dubious category -- as a hotbed for food safety violations.
A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review of inspection reports for 19 restaurants at the airport found that together they racked up some 270 critical violations over the past two years. Critical violations are the most serious types of problems that put people at risk for foodborne illnesses. The restaurants also accumulated roughly 230 lesser infractions.
The reports by the Allegheny County Health Department also showed seven "administrative" actions, a fairly rare occurrence in which persistent problems trigger a visit from a health department supervisor to press the need for corrective action.
"It sounds like more violations than we want to have," interim health department director Ronald Voorhees said when asked about the newspaper's findings.
He said the department would conduct a review to determine the need for "additional actions to improve the situation."
The Airport Group, a policy group affiliated with the labor union Unite Here, last month expressed concerns about food safety conditions at the airport during a board meeting for the Allegheny County Airport Authority. (Unite Here does not represent workers at food concessions at the Pittsburgh airport.)
The group presented board members with an analysis identifying 271 violations at airport restaurants since the beginning of 2012, a shorter period of time than the newspaper's review, including 132 critical violations.
By comparison, inspection reports for the similarly sized Mineta San Jose International Airport showed 146 violations at a nearly identical number of facilities over roughly the same time frame, with just two violations termed "major" by inspectors there, Airport Group analyst Ian Mikusko said.
"We wanted to alert the Allegheny County Airport Authority about the number of violations so it could take positive action to ensure the safety of food available to the airport's passengers," Mr. Mikusko said.
When asked about the newspaper's findings and the concerns of the Airport Group, the airport authority issued an email statement saying it was "proud of the track record of Airmall's food and beverage operators and of the hardworking food service workers who make the program a success."
Airmall USA, which manages the retail space at the airport, also released a statement via email saying it "takes great pride in managing and maintaining a clean, safe food and beverage operation."
Both the airport authority and Airmall emphasized that "no airport eatery has any outstanding issues" with the health department.
The health department can issue a yellow "Consumer Alert" sticker or shut down a restaurant for uncorrected critical food safety violations but has not done so at any restaurant at the airport.
Such actions are rare. Last year, the county issued nine consumer alerts and four closures among the roughly 7,000 food facilities it oversees.
According to the newspaper's review of health department records available online:
McDonald's located in the main area of the terminal known as the center core was hit with the most critical violations of any restaurant over the two-year period with 32 and tied with two other restaurants for prompting the most visits by inspectors at nine. County health inspectors are supposed to inspect restaurants once per year but come more often if there are severe or persistent problems.
Critical violations included undercooked burgers, holding food at unsafe temperatures and cross-contamination problems when employees handling raw meat were observed touching clean items, including a seasoning bottle and trays meant for cooked burgers.
The popular fast-food outlet also accumulated the most noncritical violations, 41, for less serious infractions such as food service employees wearing acrylic nails and excessive debris on the floor.
The restaurant's owner, Iftakhar Malik, attributed the high number of violations to a high volume of business.
"We serve the most customers," he said.
"We do not serve any food that should not be served. We serve safe food. Every product we make has a time and temperature on it and when it's expired" it is thrown out, he said.
Mr. Malik said the undercooked Quarter Pounders and Angus burgers that an inspector found last year represented "one complaint in one year."
Still, inspection reports show a similar violation about a month later at another McDonald's outlet that Mr. Malik owns, located in Concourse B. That outlet was inspected five times and accumulated 19 critical violations.
"If we were doing something real serious, they will tag you," Mr. Malik said, referring to the health department's consumer alert program.
l Charley's Steakery, also in the center core, accumulated the second highest number of critical violations at 31, including 10 recorded during a single inspection in June 2012.
The sub shop was repeatedly cited for not having at least one worker on duty certified in safe food-handling practices -- which has been a county requirement since 1993 -- and for holding foods at unsafe temperatures, including during the facility's most recent inspection in April.
Owner Drew Janis said he considers food safety the most important aspect of serving the public, that he welcomes the input from inspectors and that all violations have been corrected.
"I've been there for 21 years at the airport. We are very careful about things and run a very clean operation," he said, adding that he and his general manager took the county's food safety course but let the certification lapse. He said they were planning to be recertified.
l At Nature's Kitchen in the center core, inspectors visited nine times, finding 25 critical violations, the third highest among the 19 restaurants. Repeat violations twice triggered a meeting with a health department supervisor, the most of any restaurant at the airport.
On nearly every visit, multiple foods inside coolers were too warm. The facility also was cited multiple times for not having a certified food safety manager and not keeping food hot enough on the steam table.
Inspectors found a similar number of problems at a second Nature's Kitchen location in Concourse D.
The general manager for Nature's Kitchen did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
l At a Subway shop in Concourse B, an inspector visited six times, recording 18 critical and nine noncritical violations that prompted a visit from a health department supervisor in January.
Critical problems included meats being held at unsafe temperatures, improper sanitization and an employee observed blowing her nose and then putting on plastic gloves without washing her hands.
"That employee is no longer with us," said Mike Patel, owner of that facility and another Subway in Concourse A, where a supervisor also paid a visit in January.
"We have fixed all the problems we had," Mr. Patel said.
Although the vast majority of airport restaurants had multiple critical violations, a few stood out for exceptionally good performance. Among the three full-service T.G.I. Friday's locations at the airport, there wasn't a single critical violation and just two noncritical infractions recorded over the past two years.
"Certainly the goal of the inspection process is to decrease the number of violations as close to zero as possible," the health department's Dr. Voorhees noted.
Unless customers logged onto the county health department website, they had no way of knowing how the airport restaurants were doing.
The department has been working on implementing an A-B-C rating system that would post scores on restaurant doors. Part of the reason is to help people quickly interpret inspection reports and make it easier for them to make informed dining decisions.
Supporters say that in addition to grades helping customers make on-the-spot choices, the specter of having to post a poor score is a strong motivator for restaurants to be vigilant about food safety and to act quickly to fix health code violations.
"Certainly the hope is that it improves food safety throughout the county. That's the goal," Dr. Voorhees said.
The department was ready with a draft proposal for grading restaurants early last month, but the plan was put on hold pending the appointment of a permanent director, which was announced Friday as Karen Hacker of the Cambridge Health Alliance in Massachusetts, effective in September.
The next step would be to test the system in the field before presenting it to the Allegheny County Board of Health. The plan would then go to Allegheny County Council for consideration.
Any grading plan would be long in coming.
Some two years ago, the board unanimously approved an A-B-C rating system that had been in the works for many months but scuttled it after an outcry from prominent local restaurant owners who called it unnecessary, unfair and potentially damaging to their businesses.
That plan also was criticized by a food safety expert at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, but for a different reason. She said it was too lenient on restaurants, making it virtually useless as a guide for consumers when choosing a place to eat.
Inspection reports for Allegheny County restaurants are available online at http://webapps.achd.net/Restaurant. After locating a particular restaurant, click on the restaurant's name to see inspection reports going back two years.businessnews - dining
Patricia Sabatini: email@example.com or 412-263-3066.