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An ongoing dispute between a food service union and a popular regional chain restaurant has brought to light some Fairfax County health department reports highlighting unsanitary conditions in each of the chain’s five Fairfax County locations.

“Customers should be aware of Silver Diner’s food safety record,” said Ian Mikusko, who says he analyzed food inspection reports for Silver Diner’s 15 regional locations. “The company’s ‘healthy’ and ‘clean’ brand do not mesh with the violations in its health department reports. The restaurants have attempted to cultivate an image of healthy food and cleanliness, promising to provide ‘sparkling clean’ locations and to nurture health in the community. Health Department inspection reports project a different image of the company,” he said.

But Silver Diner says Mikusko and Unite Here, the food service union, are working toward another agenda, and are targeting their company because workers at a Silver Diner location in Maryland have rebuffed the union’s advances. “This type of tactic is right out of their playbook,” said Silver Diner spokeswoman Vicki Bendure.

Bendure advised anyone seeking more information about the union to go to the website unitehereexposed.com.

But Mikusko says his concerns are legitimate and came about from a routine review.

“We do have a dispute with Silver Diner at BWI Airport,” he said. “But independent of that dispute, it is common for us to conduct various analyses of the food service industry and part of that is analyzing restaurant inspection reports. When we did our analysis of Silver Diner’s inspections, we thought it was something that the public would be interested in.”

Reviews of Virginia Department of Health food inspection reports that are publicly available online at www.fairfaxcounty.gov, show that Silver Diner’s five Fairfax County locations have had a total of 40 critical violations since August 2012, including a cockroach infestation in September that was deemed an “eminent health hazard” at the diner’s Tysons Corner location, and resulted in the diner closing for a day to resolve the issue.

Other critical violations at all five county locations include the simultaneous handling of raw meat and ready-to-eat items, and some raw meats being undercooked.

According to the Virginia Department of Health, critical violations are violations of state food regulations, which, if left uncorrected, are more likely than other violations to directly contribute to food contamination, illness, or environmental degradation. Examples of critical violations include pest infestations, poor temperature control of food, improper cooking, cooling, refrigeration or reheating temperatures. Such problems can create environments that cause bacteria to grow and thrive, which puts the consumer at risk for food-borne illness.

In a health inspection report dated Sept. 24, 2012, it is noted that a customer at the Tysons Corner location filed a formal complaint after “receiving a live roach between the sandwich and fries.”

The report goes on to say that “upon inspection of the facility, nymphs and adult roaches were noted on a speed rack, at the front wall adjacent to the waffle machines, by the handsinks, on a knife on a prep table, [and] on the walls by the entrance to the kitchen. The restaurant has closed and the permit is suspended.”

When asked about this, Bendure said that the diner closed voluntarily that day, for scheduled renovations.

But Glen Barbour, Public Safety Information Officer for the Fairfax County Health Department, says that is not exactly what happened.

“We reviewed the inspection reports for the Silver Diner located at 8101 Fletcher Street in Mclean. The Fairfax County Health Department was at the establishment on 9/24/2012 in response to a complaint that we received from a member of the public on 9/23/2012. During our inspection, our inspector observed an ‘imminent health hazard’ as described in the report,” Barbour wrote in an email. “At that time, the establishment voluntarily ceased operations (closed) until the hazard could be corrected. The establishment obtained approval from the Health Department to resume operations the following day. In this case, the Health Department conducted an in-person inspection on 9/25/2012 and verified that the ‘imminent health hazard’ had been corrected.”

Since that incident, the Tysons Corner location has been cited for five additional “critical” violations.

“It is not uncommon for inspectors to discover one or more critical violations during an inspection,” said Barbour.

“That is par for the course in the restaurant industry,” agreed Ed Sherwin, a former government health inspector who now consults for Silver Diner, among other clients. “I find things wrong all the time. Anything can be considered a violation. Someone not washing their hands before putting on sanitary gloves can be considered a violation. There have been no reports of food borne illnesses at any Silver Diner locations. That is the important thing to remember here.”

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com