SPECIAL REPORT: How Safe is Your Food? Marathon Co. Restaurant Health Inspections

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There's no doubt about it, here in North Central Wisconsin we enjoy going out to eat. We dine out for 25 percent of our meals.

But is your food safe when you visit your favorite restaurant?

NewsChannel 7 wanted to find out. We made a public records request for food safety reports with Marathon County, asking specifically for the restaurants in the highest revenue category.

"We see a lot of stuff, it can just be general cleaning," said Dale Grosskurth, Marathon County's environmental health and safety director.

Or it could be something more risky, something that opens the door for spreading foodborne illness.

"We're looking at hand washing would be an important one, cooling foods that if they were prepared a day before that they're cooling it down adequately in the time frame that's been established so that bacteria won't grow," Grosskurth said.

2510 restaurant in Wausau allowed us into their kitchen, where they welcome health inspections.

"We're proud of what we serve here, it's very fresh and one of the main things you have to worry about is consumer safety," said Roy Heilmeier, part-owner of the restaurant. "We work very well with the health department on that."

Heilmeier is honest about previous violations, including not date-marking canned goods and not always keeping wiping cloths in a sanitizer or soap solution.

"You never want anything on them, the best inspection is a perfect one. Have we ever been perfect? No, we never have," he said.

But 2510 isn't alone. In our search of the 24 highest-revenue Marathon County restaurants from 2011 through now, almost every restaurant had violations.

The Great Dane had 11 violations last year, including having discolored and worn cutting boards and prep tables.

City Grill went from nine violations in 2011 to four in 2012, but for the third year didn't provide a state of Wisconsin certificate in food management even though the manager had passed the course.

Hudson's Classic Grill had the most violations last year with 16, including having a dishwasher that wasn't sanitizing properly.

Some of the violations popped up repeatedly in local restaurants including: improperly storing utensils, inadequate hand washing stations and fluctuating temperatures in coolers.

The average number of violations was 4.7.

"We find them wherever we go," Grosskurth said.

Except in rare occasions. McDonalds on Stewart Ave and Forest Street had perfect inspections last year, so did Olive Garden and Texas Roadhouse.

Culvers on Bridge Street was perfect this year, as was McDonalds on Campus Drive.

Thankfully, we did not find any cringeworthy violations; no rodents in the soup or roaches on the floor.

But those with too many violations, or serious ones are reinspected.

McDonalds on Business 51 in Schofield had to be reinspected last year and this year. McDonalds on Campus Drive, which had a clean report this year, had to be reinspected in 2011. McDonalds on Forest Street, which had a clean report last year, needed to be reinspected this year.

Perkins was reinspected last year twice because of temperature issues in the coolers.

Applebees in Marshfield, which is technically in Marathon County, was reinspected last year after having 11 violations.

Reinspections also occurred at City Grill, Fazoli's, Great Dane, The Green Mill, and Hudson's Classic Grill.

If violations aren't rectified, the county can assess a $100 fee, something that typically occurs several times a year.

"When you involve people and processes and equipment you're going to find some violations that's the nature of it," Grosskurth said. "The the idea is to reduce the number of violations."

While health inspectors are observing, they're also asking questions and if something seems off, trying to understand why while working with the restaurant to fix it.

"In doing so we're able to provide education, one on one to the staff or the owner themselves and we really see it as an opportunity to help reduce risk for violations," Grosskurth said.

As violations are typical, so are complaints and concerns from consumers.

For the restaurant reports we looked at, there were 12 consumer complaints in the last two years, seven of them from people who became sick claiming it was because of something they ate while dining out. None of the claims were verified by the health department.

"We've done investigations and found out it wasn't related to the food at all," Grosskurth said.

When just one person complains, or two who are related, Grosskurth says it's difficult to prove their illness came from any particular restaurant.

Typically, the health department will interview the complainant and then contact the restaurant to see if any employees were sick or if anyone else complained. If not, there's not much else that is done.

"But if you have people who are not related who have nothing else in common and you get a similar illness in a similar time frame you may not have enough to point to a particular food or particular organism," Grosskurth said. "We can say to a restaurant something may have happened here, we really don't have enough to verify it."

But Grosskurth admits foodborne illness outbreaks do occur in Marathon County, typically once or twice a year.

Across the country there are 48 million cases a year, that's one in six people, highlighting the importance of restaurants following health codes and health inspectors making sure they do.

NewsChannel 7 also made a public records request with the county for foodborne illness investigation reports from the last two years, but haven't yet received them.

Again, we only looked at a the restaurants with the highest amounts of revenue in Marathon County for this particular report. If you're concerned about a local establishment, let us know by emailing 7investigates@wsaw.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the records we looked at were from the most 'profitable' restaurants in the County. The records were for those restaurants in the highest revenue category.