Food & Drink

Feast Q&A: Sacramento County restaurant inspector Sara Cardozo

Sara Cordozo takes food temperatures at Fabian’s.
Sara Cordozo takes food temperatures at Fabian’s.

Sara Cardozo covers a lot of ground. For eight years, she’s been one of about 40 “registered environmental specialists” for the Sacramento County Environmental Management Department.

As such, she inspects many of the 5,747 food facilities in Sacramento County for cleanliness and safety, averaging three per working day, including restaurants, bars, markets, school cafeterias, hot dog carts – any place that serves food to the public. She takes seriously the estimated 48 million food-borne illnesses in the U.S. each year, many originating outside the home.

“The biggest cause of food-related illness is improper hand-washing,” she said, so the first thing she does on every inspection is wash her hands.

Typically, health inspectors will visit every food facility three times a year, with no advance notice. Facilities’ annual operating permit fees range from $233 to $1,643, essentially paying for the inspections, which you can view online at

Recently, Cardozo led me on a “mock inspection” of the kitchen at Fabian’s Italian Bistro in Fair Oaks, where she examined every nook and cranny.

Q. What are the qualifications for the job?

A. A bachelor’s degree in science – mine is in nutrition science from UC Davis – then training in food safety, environmental and recreational health, liquid wastes, hazardous material (and more areas of expertise). There’s a registration exam and continuing education. My on-the-job training was a year.

Have you worked in a restaurant?

No, but having that experience could be helpful in understanding how professional kitchens work, and what’s realistic and what’s not. I’ve had to learn that on the job.

Q. What are the main risk factors in restaurant kitchens?

A. Improper heat and cold (temperatures for food), cross-contamination (food to food, and people to food), failure to wash hands, and food from unapproved sources (such as unpermitted community gardens and specialty farms).

Q. How long does an inspection take?

A. For one the size of Fabian’s, about an hour and a half. But I’ve been in some kitchens for four hours, resolving issues. A grocery store takes longer because it has multiple permits.

Q. What would cause you to close a restaurant?

A. We close for (major infractions such as) vermin infestations, lack of water or hot water, surfacing sewage (backed-up floor drains or sinks) – things that prevent normal activities, or could cause cross-contamination and food-borne illness.

Q. How do food-facility owners react when the health inspector comes calling?

A. Some are angry, and some are welcoming. Part of our people skills is creating enough of a rapport to get our message of food safety across.

Q. Is there any front-of-the-house indicator the public should look for?

A. Look at the restrooms. Are (they) stocked with paper towels, soap and warm water? If the food handlers are using them, you want them to be in good shape.

Q. Color-coded food-inspection placarding began here in 2007. Green for “pass,” yellow for “conditional pass,” red for “closed.” Has it worked?

A. It’s been a great way to invite the public into our process, and we’ve seen a decrease in major violations and food-borne illnesses because of it.

Q. What are your own go-to restaurants?

A. I cook at home almost exclusively, so I have none.

Q. How safe is the dining public?

A. In general, very safe. We don’t allow violations to linger.

Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.

Sara Cardozo

Environmental specialist for the Sacramento County Environmental Management Department

She’s conducted nearly 4,000 food-facility inspections in Sacramento County.