An exclusive NBC 5 investigation discovered the Tarrant County Health Department skipped inspections at dozens of restaurants at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
According to inspection reports obtained by NBC 5 Investigates, 30 airport restaurants went more than a year without a single county health inspection. That’s nearly one-third of all restaurants at the airport; another 87 restaurants were only inspected once in 2013.
Tarrant County health inspectors are supposed to check restaurants at the airport at least twice a year.
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But NBC 5 Investigates found the county’s inspection plan fell behind last year because of the West Nile virus.
David Jefferson, manager of environment health at the Tarrant County Health Department, said as the West Nile virus season kicked up, he pulled his inspectors out of the airport and sent them out to spray for mosquitoes instead.
“And so we fell behind our inspections out at the airport,” said Jefferson.
Detailed records show why those restaurants should be checked. Over the last two years, DFW restaurants that did get inspected racked up a combined total of 370 critical health violations, things that could make someone sick.
The reports show restaurants were cited for a number of violations including food workers not washing their hands properly, meat not being stored at proper temperatures, frozen chicken being thawed improperly, expired milk, fruit flies and food workers handling salad with their bare hands. Inspectors also found mold and slime in soda nozzles, tea nozzles, ice bins and inside a cooler.
Jefferson admitted that with the volume of people passing through the airport, currently more than 60 million per year, it was important to make sure restaurants were in compliance with the health code where even some of the exclusive airline lounges had been cited for violations.
“It's very important to inspect them - not just there, but anywhere. But with the people passing through it makes it more difficult if a problem occurs for it to be traced back to the source.” Jefferson said.
Still, Jefferson chose to skip inspections at the airport instead of other areas of the county because he trusted the airport would keep an eye on things while the county inspectors were gone.
Airport spokesman David Magaña said the airport is focused on travelers having good experiences and that they have their own quality control inspectors who monitor many of the same concerns as the county inspectors.
But the health department can provide an extra level of assurance for travelers.
“It does absolutely, but I also want customers to know that we also have a program and many of the restaurants have their own,” said Magaña.
Despite the hundreds of health violations reported in the last two years – officials at the airport insist their restaurant vendors are among the best anywhere.
Over the last several months the county inspectors have been back to the airport.
After NBC 5 Investigates filed a request for records, health inspectors went out and checked 27 restaurants.
They’re now getting caught up and hoping that as they enter West Nile virus season they don’t have to choose one over the other.
NBC 5 Investigates asked the health department if they are too understaffed to be able to deal with more than one major issue at a time. They said more inspectors would help, but they also don't want to be overstaffed in the quieter months.