Public health director says restaurant inspector’s mistake was one-time occurrence
Computer error blamed for Bethesda business wrongly getting violation notice
Barrel and Crow in Bethesda was mistakenly cited last month for a health violation that occurred at Bethesda Bagels in the Wildwood Shopping Center.
This story was updated at 8:20 p.m. Jan. 7, 2020, to correct references in the fourth paragraph that were reversed for Bethesda Bagels and Barrel and Crow.
Montgomery County’s chief public health officer said a mistaken violation notice given to a Bethesda restaurant is the only error the county has found during an internal review. However, Dr. Travis Gayles said there also is no proof that a similar mistake hasn’t happened before.
Bethesda’s Barrel and Crow was mistakenly cited for not keeping food hot enough on Dec. 19, but the inspection was supposed to have been logged for Bethesda Bagels at 10241 Old Georgetown Road. The Dec. 19 violation was corrected, according to the report.
Another report from October, in which no violations were reported during an inspection, was also incorrectly attached to Barrel and Crow instead of Bethesda Bagels.
County health officials have said inspector Erica Davis inspected Bethesda Bagels both times. But because of a computer malfunction, from the field, she couldn’t access a file for Bethesda Bagels. Instead, she logged the information in a file for Barrel and Crow, expecting to switch it to the right place later.
Davis’ errors came to light at the end of December because the Bethesda Patch news site posted a story in which Barrel and Crow was listed as a violator, then a followup roundup by Bethesda Beat of local news stories mentioned the same violation.
The county conducts health inspections on a regular basis for all licensed retail food establishments. Businesses are evaluated on factors such as sanitation, food service and maintenance. The health department can shut down a restaurant if it doesn’t correct a critical violation.
Barrel and Crow owner Laura Houlihan learned of the errors through news coverage and confronted the health department about them. The health department admitted the errors and, at Houlihan’s request, outlined them in a letter to her.
In a previous interview, Houlihan told Bethesda Beat that she worries about the possibility that there are other erroneous reports in the county’s database. A false restaurant inspection, she said can “make or break” a business such as hers.
“I’ve got an established clientele and that affects my business,” she said
Both erroneous reports have since been corrected in dataMontgomery, the county’s database that keeps track of restaurant inspection reports.
Gayles, the county’s chief of public health services, said in an interview Friday that after Houlihan complained about the errors, the department conducted an internal review to examine what happened.
Gayles said Davis couldn’t label her Bethesda Bagels inspection report correctly because her computer was not updated. He said an inspector in the field uses a mobile device to log information. The device is supposed to synch with an inspector’s desk computer, but Davis’ mobile device did not.
Kenneth Welch, the county’s environmental health services manager, said in an interview that a problem with the software on Davis’s computer resulted in her saving the two inspections in the Barrel and Crow file instead of the Bethesda Bagels file, and that Davis never properly labeled it.
Davis did not return messages left at her office on Dec. 30 and Jan. 6 and Jan. 7.
Gayles and Welch said they would also pass along messages from Bethesda Beat seeking an interview. Mary Anderson, a spokeswoman for the health department, wrote in an email on Jan. 3 that she did not think Davis should be part of the story.
“The inspector was not the story — technology was the problem,” Anderson wrote.
Welch said Davis is responsible for inspecting 174 restaurants in the Bethesda area. Davis is one of 21 inspectors monitoring places that serve food throughout the county.
Gayles said he supported Welch’s statement that Davis mislabeled the reports for Bethesda Bagels, although he had no direct knowledge.
“There may have been an error in terms of putting the wrong label on a report,” he said.
Gayles said that despite the error, there was no problem with the integrity of Davis’s inspections.
Following the discovery of the error, Gayles said, all of the health department’s computers were taken offline so the department could conduct a review. The department then noticed the problem with computers not synching with each other because of a problem with a software update.
“Based on what we have found, and looking through our notes, this was a one-time occurrence that occurred because of the computer had not received the full update,” he said.
Gayles said in another interview Monday that the review involved making sure that the computers of all 21 inspectors have proper software updates.
He said Monday that Davis’s computer was reviewed first. Not all of the computers had been reviewed as of Monday morning he said, but no other problems had been found.
“There was no other concern or reason to believe that any of those computers had any such issues with their update,” he said.
Asked if there might be other undiscovered errors, Gayles said it’s possible, but none had been found.
Gayles said an inspector talks at the end of each inspection to share information about violations. Then, the inspector writes a report and enters it into the county database.
“If I am a restaurant owner and I got a bad inspection or had concerns about my inspection, when the inspector comes to see me, I know what’s going to be included in that report,” he said. “When you report your violations, none of that is a surprise.”
Gayles wasn’t sure what percentage of Davis’ inspections had been reviewed, but said no other reports with inaccuracies had been found.
“We continue to look through the technology to identify other potential cases, but haven’t found any thus far,” he said.
Gayles said Davis is still on the job and there is “no reason to believe there is concern with her technical ability.” He added that all inspectors review their own reports and said the error would have come to light without local media reports getting Houlihan’s attention.
But Gayles added that the department will pay closer attention to making sure inspectors’ computers are working correctly, to prevent similar errors.
“In this particular situation, we’ve learned from this to make sure we’re more vigilant that if this happens in the future, that’s part of our review process,” he said.
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org