Medical unit keeps an eye on food
March 16, 2003
YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — The next time you take a big bite from a beefy burger on post, think about Spc. Shawn Miller and Cpl. Shin Dong-hyuk.
The two soldiers — along with many others with the 5th Medical Detachment — inspect 117 food and hairstyling facilities on 14 installations within two Army administrative regions in South Korea.
They look under freezers for dirt, scope out counters and cutting boards, look at stacks of frozen chicken, analyze food workers’ fingers and put thermometers in dishwashers.
Oh, they also look for rodent droppings.
The reason: Food can kill.
Throughout U.S. history, “We’ve lost more people in combat due to disease than battle injury,” Miller said.
During the Civil War, about 390,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died from diseases rather than combat, a figure that works out to one in 14 who fought in the war, according to www.ehistory.com.
A number of the deaths were attributed to consuming contaminated food and water, including drinking from streams with dead bodies or human waste and eating uncooked meat. Diseases included diarrhea, typhoid, dysentery, tuberculosis and smallpox.
The Army issues an inch-thick volume of regulations for inspectors to follow, Miller said. In comparison, he said, he’s seen the health code for New York state, which is about six pocket-sized pages that fold out like an accordion.
Cities and counties, which license most U.S. restaurants, typically have much more extensive health-code requirements. But most civilian restaurants in the States are lucky to get an inspection once a year, Miller said. On Army installations, most places are inspected monthly, with inspectors spending between 30 minutes to two hours combing through kitchens and storage areas, he said.
“Our food is probably the safest food you can get in America,” said Maj. Jason Pike, commander of the 5th Medical Detachment, which falls under the 18th Medical Command.
The military tightly regulates what food is served on installations, Pike said, adding that military food inspectors also check out factories where the Defense Department buys goods.
The 5th Medical Detachment has both U.S. and South Korean soldiers assigned to the unit to perform inspections. U.S. soldiers go through a four-month course at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, the home of the Army’s medical school.
The inspections are detailed and unannounced.
Miller and Shin usually check out people’s jewelry first. Only a wedding band is allowed because food can get stuck between the band and the finger, Miller said.
Because foods have different safe cooking temperatures, they must be stacked in certain ways in freezers. For example, Miller said, chicken should be cooked at a higher temperature than red meat, so chicken juice dripping on meat patties could cause a salmonella outbreak if the red meat isn’t cooked long enough.
There’s also a “first in, first out” rule with stacked food. Handlers are required to mark the date a shipment is received. Miller said he’s caught people erasing the marker and changing dates. “Sometimes people are lazy and only take stuff out that is stored in front of the storage place,” he said.
A food inspection form details how a restaurant performs. For example, the American Eatery in the Townhouse at Yongsan Garrison performed fairly well during a Feb. 11 inspection. However, inspectors noticed that a leak from another piece of equipment caused a box of chicken to ice up and that wooden pallets — which dangerously can absorb juices from meat — were used improperly to store food.
At Primo’s Pizza in the basement of the Dragon Hill Lodge, inspectors noticed in January that chicken wings were stored above the green peppers. A dirty soda dispenser also was found.
Once problems are pointed out, inspectors will return after a few days to ensure they have been fixed, Miller said.
In fact, the last time the military had a serious food-borne illness outbreak was about 10 years ago at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., where a woman became ill after contact with rats.
“Since I’ve been here,” said Pike, who has been in South Korea for 18 months, “there has not been an outbreak because the standards are so high.”