ON THE HOTTEST DAY OF 2011, Eyob Mazengia, health and environmental investigator for the Seattle and King County Public Health department, stands on an unshaded street corner awaiting the magazine writer—me—who is scheduled to follow him around on his afternoon visits. Right away, I spot him. It’s easy, since there are few other contenders for the part of restaurant inspector among the characters loitering at this particular intersection on this particular afternoon. It seems unlikely that the raggedy duo confabbing in front of the drug store, their cigarettes squeezed tightly in their dishwater-colored fingers, are in the business of preaching proper food-cooling practices to line cooks. And while it’s possible that the young beauty across the street from them (matte lipstick, short skirt) spends her days querying dishwashers about the ratios of sanitation solutions, I doubt it.
No, here is the man for the job: Eyob Mazengia, compact and evenly proportioned at about five foot six, wearing black trousers and an ironed oxford shirt. Squeezed in his right hand, the handle of his attache case works hard to bear its heaving burden: inspection reports; laminated sick-leave-policy reminders in English, Mandarin, Spanish, and Korean; a digital thermometer sheathed in purple plastic.
We shake hands. It’s a reflexive nicety, but one that later, after I see him open a men’s room door so that it touched only his sleeved upper arm, will seem less benign. Isn’t such palm-to-palm contact unwelcome in the world of restaurant inspectors? Does this potential passage of pathogens inspire a ripple of anxiety in a person so preoccupied with contamination? Or does Eyob Mazengia’s attraction to positive human connection overpower his acute awareness of potentially disastrous microbial contact?
Properly introduced, we walk at a speedy clip toward Mazengia’s first scheduled destination, a conveyor-belt sushi bar. On the way, he launches into his spiel, a spiel I will hear many times during our afternoon together. The health inspector is not an enforcer. He is not here to dig up reasons to shut down restaurants. Think of him as an educator, rather than a cop. He is here to help! The restaurant inspector, the restaurateur, and the staff are a team, and their goal, together, is to keep the public healthy.
He’s still talking when we arrive at the sushi bar. It’s the waning moments of the lunch hour, and there is just one couple eyeing the saucers of shrimp nigiri and steamed edamame that travel around the room on a brand-new track. Invented in Osaka, Japan, in the late 1950s, conveyor-belt, or kaiten, sushi bars were designed to cut costs by reducing staff and simplifying pricing (the color of the plate corresponds to its cost). The concept came to Seattle about 12 years ago—as it happens King County Public Health temporarily shuttered one of the area’s first kaiten spots, Marinepolis Sushi Land in Bellevue, just a month before Mazengia and I darken the door at this one. Two people who’d dined there had come down with salmonella. The county never established a direct correlation, and the restaurant was quickly reopened.
Mazengia opens up his investigation the way he does every visit. He rolls up his sleeves, squares off in front of the hand-washing sink, and gives his mitts a good, long, soapy scrub. This, he explains as the kimono-clad sushi chef and I hover around him, reinforces the practice of meticulous hand washing to restaurant owners and workers.
It can come off as condescending, this whole scrubbing show, but hand washing is serious business in the food safety sector. Food makes us sick when it is contaminated with bacteria, parasites, or viruses—things that get there by way of dirty hands. Clean hands, plastic gloves, sanitizer: These precautions are, to Mazengia’s mind, the central weapons in the war against outbreak.
At the automatic dishwasher, another lecture. A pH strip reveals that no chlorine is traveling through the machine; the sushi bar’s colorful plates are not being properly sanitized. Repairs will be necessary. Crouching in front of coolers, peeking into Tupperware containers, checking the labels on chemicals, Mazengia makes frequent use of what teachers like to refer to as the “shit sandwich” approach to criticism—every negative comment is smooshed between compliments. I’m happy to see you using separate knives for cutting raw fish and vegetables, but you need to call the dishwasher guy so you’re actually sanitizing your dishes. But I like that you have a system for knowing when food went onto the conveyor belt. And so on.