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The Daily Tar Heel

County health inspector works to prevent illness

Environmental health specialist Shaquetta Cooper checks the temperature of chicken at a local grocery store deli. DTH/Daixi Xu
Environmental health specialist Shaquetta Cooper checks the temperature of chicken at a local grocery store deli. DTH/Daixi Xu

Shaquetta Cooper can easily recite what temperature different foods should be kept at, the distance a bathroom must be from a seating area and how bright the lights should be.

Just by smelling an acidity test strip, she can tell if there’s an imbalance in a bleach cleaning mixture.

At the age of 25, Cooper is the youngest of three environmental health specialists in Orange County. Cooper balances raising 7-month-old twins with monitoring the practices of local establishments.

Cooper, who studied environmental science at East Carolina University, inspects restaurants, pools, schools, day cares, hotels and tattoo parlors, focusing on the town of Chapel Hill.

“If health inspectors didn’t exist, a lot more people would get sick,” Cooper said.

Cooper inspected the deli department of the Carrboro Harris Teeter on Friday, arriving without warning.

She roamed the deli, checking every cabinet, testing the temperature of display foods and inspecting the equipment.

The deli earned a 100.

“If you’re not complying to health department rules, I would be nervous,” Harris Teeter store director Scott Riley said.

During her inspections, Cooper said two of her biggest concerns include hand washing facilities and food temperature.

“That’s where illnesses come from,” she said.

She checks each hand washing station for soap, paper towels and a sign alerting employees that they must wash their hands before work and after each bathroom visit.

Grades are distributed on a 100 point scale, in which a score of 69 or lower results in the department closing a place’s doors.

Hand washing is worth four points — one of the highest point values.

Violations that could spread foodborne illnesses hold a higher value.

At the end of each inspection, Cooper reviews her findings with the owners and makes sure the health inspection grade is posted in a visible location.

Cooper, who has worked as a health inspector for two years, has never given a restaurant below an 80, which would be considered a “C” grade.

“You have to do a lot to get less than an A,” Cooper said.

Even pest infestations are only worth two points out of 100 on the Food Service Establishment Inspection form.

She once inspected a restaurant where cockroaches were crawling on customers’ plates and swimming in sanitizer.

“Roaches give me the shudders. I’m always afraid I’m going to take some home,” Cooper said.

She does take home special plate sanitizer, food labeling habits and sometimes words of wisdom for her own mother.

“It sounds silly when I tell my mom not to thaw chicken in the sink,” she said.

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