Plus: Tips for diners
April 16, 2024
  • Most people bring an appetite to a restaurant. Catalina Ibarra brings a thermometer.

    Ibarra works as an Environmental Health Specialist II. Her job is to enforce the California Retail Food Code, all 56,100 or so words of it.

    Armed with probes, flashlights and wipes, Ibarra inspects restaurants and other food-serving operations in San Mateo County. She plunges needle-like thermometers into steaks, salads and soups, peers under sinks for signs of unwelcome visitors and grills chefs on food-safety procedures.

    “You have to keep your head on a swivel,” Ibarra said as she entered a kitchen during a recent inspection.

    She is on the front (sanitized) line of protecting diners from food-borne illnesses. These include maladies triggered by bacteria or parasites with nasty names like  Clostridium perfringens, Campylobacter and Toxoplasmosis.

    “Everything starts with the hand wash,” she said. “My main focus is on what can get someone sick immediately.”

    And that means ensuring raw foods are handled with clean hands or clean gloves. Refrigerators work. Chopping blocks are clean. “(P)asta and any other food stuffed with fish, meat, poultry, or ratites” are “heated to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 seconds….”*

    This article is part of an occasional series that seeks to help answer the question, “What does government do, actually?”

    Those are among hundreds of rules inspectors learn on their way to becoming certified through the state’s Registered Environmental Health Specialist program. Some of the rules may sound common sense (Don’t store food in locker, toilet or refuse rooms or “under sewer lines that are not shielded to intercept potential drips” – Article 5, Section 114049.)

    Catalina Ibarra
    Among the job qualifications: Knowledge of: Principles of biological and physical sciences. Principles and practices of environmental health sanitation. Techniques of environmental health inspection, investigation and control.

    But food-handling and sanitation procedures for much of our nation’s history mostly did not exist. That was until “The Jungle,” Upton Sinclair’s 1905 novel that “described in nauseating detail” the conditions in a Chicago meatpacking house, “caused a public furor,” according to the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service.

    Still, it wasn’t until 1934 that the then-U.S. Public Health Service “first became actively interested in the sanitation of eating and drinking establishments.” Among the recommendations: prohibit “the use of any polish containing cyanide preparations for the cleansing or polishing of utensils.”

    Did you know San Mateo County Environmental Health Services is responsible for the inspection of various types of mobile food facilities, including food trucks? Take a behind-the-scenes look

    Today, Environmental Health Services employs 16 environmental health specialists certified in health and safety procedures for its food program. Trained in knowing what diseases that can occur if food is left out too long or mishandled and how to write thorough findings, they conduct more than 5,000 inspections annually.

    Ibarra carries a clipboard with a checklist – available to everyone – that helps ensure all establishments – from small family-owned restaurants to national chains – follow the same rules.


    “Welcome to Trellis.”

    That’s Kurt Ugur, the owner of a restaurant with an Italian-inspired menu and Hollywood-inspired décor, greeting Ibarra and two members of the County’s communications team. Ugur was unfazed at the scrutiny: he agreed beforehand to let his kitchen serve as an example for Ibarra’s scrupulous work.

    Food on the stove top.

    Inspections take about 60 minutes. Ibarra checks the cleanliness of chopping boards while asking a chef a series of time and temperatures questions. She opens a built-in refrigerator, ensuring there’s no cross-contamination involving raw foods, and diligently takes temperature readings.

    Then it’s on to a vermin inspection – flashlight a must.

    The County uses a color-coded placard system – green (pass), yellow (conditional pass) and red (closure) – to determine the facility’s food safety status. Placards are required “to be posted in clear view of prospective customers entering the facility.”

    The verdict? Trellis is a pass.


    While Ibarra has issued yellow placards and red placards, she trusts the grading system when deciding where to dine out (see her tips for diners below). “I like all foods,” she said, “but I really enjoy dumplings, sushi and pasta.”

    Ibarra grew up in San Mateo County  and enjoys reading, listening to podcasts, journaling, traveling and a good cup of coffee. She has a dog, Gatsby.

    Catalina Ibarra’s tips for diners:

    1. Does the facility appear well kept and clean in common areas such as the dining area and restrooms?

    2.  Are utensils, plates, tables and glasses clean in appearance and touch?

    3. Are there any foul odors?

    4. Check that the facility has a permit with the County and is receiving inspections. Food carts will have a decal permit located on the exterior of the food carts. Mobile food trucks will have a placard visible to consumers at pass-through windows. Permitted restaurants will have a placard posted at the door, window or other visible location to the public.

    5. If there are any doubts or concerns, please contact our office; we are more than happy to help!


    *The California Retail Food Code could fulfill a Scrabble player’s dream, filled with such words as comminuted (reduced in size by methods including chopping, flaking, grinding, or mincing) and gleaner (a person who legally gathers remnants of an agricultural crop or harvest) and, of course ratites (flightless birds: ostriches, emus, cassowaries, rheas and kiwis. We had to look it up.)

    In the 2021-22 and 2022-23 fiscal years, inspectors issued 155 red (CLOSED) placards “for serious food safety violations.”

    San Mateo County Environmental Health
    2000 Alameda de las Pulgas
    Suite 100
    San Mateo, CA 94403

    Office Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday

    Media Contact

    Preston Merchant
    Communications Officer
    San Mateo County Health