More than a decade ago, city health inspectors would see occasional mouse droppings at Philadelphia International Airport, black residue and slime inside ice machines, and eggs and other cold foods kept at temperatures too warm.
In 2011, the airport approved the hiring of two former city health inspectors, and the results have been dramatic.
Violations for risk factors known to cause food-borne illness have significantly declined. Today, the airport's 27 eat-in restaurants have a better average than the citywide numbers for 5,000 non-airport eat-in restaurants.
The airport numbers improved after MarketPlace Philadelphia, the company that manages the airport shops and restaurants, hired Ken Gruen, a retired health department district supervisor in West Philadelphia, and Jerry Zager, another health inspector, who worked with Gruen.
The two have a business, Environmental Health Consultants L.L.C. In addition to making sure 70 food establishments between Terminals A and F are up to snuff, their other major client is the Philadelphia Four Seasons Hotel. "We inspect the kitchen, their entire food preparation and storage facility," Gruen said.
At the airport, Gruen and Zager make the rounds of every terminal once a month, checking food-storage temperatures, cleanliness of floors and countertops, whether there are paper towels, hot water, and soap, and whether the establishment has a current city food license. They also make sure there is a certified food-safety handler on duty, as required by the Philadelphia Health Code.
In the four years that Gruen and Zager have been advisers, the airport's food-borne illness violations logged by the city Department of Public Health have fallen from an average 4.6 violations for eat-in restaurants in 2010 to 3.8 in 2011, 2 in both 2012 and 2013, and 1.56 last year.
The citywide average for eat-in food establishments was 2.2 violations in 2014. The citations are for food-handling practices that scientists say play a role in transmitting germs.
The city posts all inspection reports online going back to mid-2009. The Inquirer and Philly.com created a database of nearly 70,000 reports, which the public can query at www.philly.com/cleanplates.
"The airport takes safety, in any aspect, very seriously," Philadelphia deputy aviation director James Tyrrell said. "This was one of those issues that was very troubling to us. Health inspectors come in, and the worst of all possible outcomes is to have an establishment closed in plain sight of the traveling public. We've had that happen," he said.
When MarketPlace proposed hiring two former health inspectors to prevent problems, "we said, 'Go ahead, let's try it,' " Tyrrell recalled. "It has been a tremendous success. The number of violations have gone down, while the number of our food establishments have gone up."
Gruen said the violations "we mainly see now are noncritical. They are not going to make people sick."
Noncritical would be an empty paper-towel dispenser when the restaurant has paper towels, Gruen said, or floors are dirty because they were not cleaned overnight, or lightbulbs have blown out in work areas and haven't been replaced.
According to city inspection reports, Villa Pizza in Terminal B had the most violations for food-borne illness risks at 56. Many were before 2012. The latest inspection had no violations.
The Philadelphia Airport Marriott, which is not part of the airport, had 30 food-borne illness violations, including 14 in 2010. It also improved.
Jet Rock Bar & Grille in Terminal B had 28 citations - most before 2012 - for things like "uncovered beef in freezer." It had one violation last year.
Sky Asian Bistro in Terminal C accumulated 28 violations since 2009 that are considered risk factors for food-borne illness. "They have improved greatly," Gruen said.
Eateries with the fewest violations included Sbarro in Terminal E; Popeye's Louisiana Kitchen in Terminal C; Revive in Terminal F; Starbucks between Terminals B and C; and Iron Chef Jose Garces' Local Tavern in Terminal F, which has no violations.
In 2011, Villa Pizza had a high number of violations for food-borne illness risk factors at its Philadelphia International Airport location, but it has had significantly fewer violations since then.
2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 Total
Villa Pizza -* 11 29 6 8 2 56
*No inspection conducted.
SOURCE: Phila. Health Department inspections