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Nov 4, 2010 10:49 PM by Ariel Wesler

Special Report: Behind the Kitchen Door

San Luis Obispo County is known for its popular restaurant scene, but there's often more to these restaurants than first meets the eye and the palate.

There are ten health inspectors that patrol nearly 1700 restaurants in the county. They make sure your food is safe. We gave one of those inspectors a pocket camera and you won't believe what he found.

It's not an easy thing to stomach. Flies in and around food, a sink with dirty handles for employees to wash their hands. They are some of the dirtiest kitchens in San Luis Obispo County, behind the scenes places you'll probably never see, but your food certainly will. While watching this video can be enough to make you sick, county health inspectors work everyday to ensure you don't get even sicker.

We wanted to find out exactly how county inspectors do their jobs, so we shadowed them into a popular restaurant in downtown San Luis Obispo and had a look.

Inspectors say dirty kitchen equipment is one of the most common health code violations.

"The edges of your bakers racks need to be scrubbed and sanitized," said Health Inspector Pamela Moore.

From top. . . to bottom, they scoure the kitchen and grill the cooks.

Moore has been a health inspector with San Luis Obispo County since 2006. She keeps a close eye on what's cooking in the kitchen and says another common violation is food not being held at the proper temperature to kill deadly bacteria.

"It's only at 100 degrees. It needs to be 135 degrees, the same with the utensil storage," Moore said.

Inspectors try to hit each restaurant every nine months.

"They definitely notice some things that I don't notice, so, it's good it keeps me on my toes," said a chef.

Those with a history of violations could get multiple visits and face hefty fines.

"It's embarassing for them if we find stuff. If it's not, then they don't care," Moore said.

In most cases, inspectors will try to fix violations on the spot by throwing out bad or contaminated food or raising the temperature on the food that's undercooked. Sometimes, that's just the beginning.

"I had a facility that you couldn't really tell how many droppings there were because it was so dirty," Moore said.

The inspector with our pocket camera found so many rodent droppings at a Chinese restaurant in the south county, he had to shut it down until pest control took care of the problem. Re-inspections occur two weeks after the intial visit to make sure restaurants have cleaned up their act. The county says it closes about a dozen food facilities a year, but Moore says it all boils down to customer service.

"Someone has a bad experience at a restaurant, they're not just gonna go to bed, they're going to make sure other people know. I don't think you should go there," Moore said. "That's how you say thank you to your customers. Doing everything in your power that you can to not make them sick."

Inspectors say fast food restaurants are among the cleanest in the county. That's because they often conduct their own inspections. We also tried to follow inspectors in Santa Barbara County, but they denied our requests.

The county inspectors gave us access to the restaurants in this story if we agreed not to identify them, but we are making it easy for you to check out the records of restaurants you visit. Just click restaurant records or for Santa Barbara County, click here.

Coming up tomorrow night in part two of our special report, we'll show you some of the worst violations and offer more information searching for restaurant records online.

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