Troubled environment found inside state Ecology workers’ cafe

About 900 workers file into the state Department of Ecology’s building in Lacey each day with a mission to — according to the agency’s website — “protect, preserve and enhance Washington’s land, air and water for current and future generations.”

A February health inspection found imperiled segments of the food chain very near the workers’ desks.

The Thurston County Health Department found 75 points of red-level “high risk factor” violations in the agency’s cafe — which is open to the public — on a routine surprise visit Feb. 14.

While inspectors watched, the workers washed their hands improperly. Egg and tuna salads sat on a prep table at unsafe temperatures. Chicken and gravy rested at risky warm temperatures. Frozen tater tots and french fries thawed on a room-temperature counter.

According to a database maintained by The Olympian, the report tied the second-most points assessed for high-risk violations in the last six months of department restaurant inspections. (The only other state agency inspected in the last six months, the State Senate Dining Room, scored a perfect zero for violations Feb. 10).

The findings were bad enough to require corrective action and a follow-up inspection two weeks later.

Ecology Department spokesman Dustin Terpening said the cafeteria’s troubles were easily explained.

Consolidated Food Management, a Tukwila contractor that also serves private schools and jails, has run the agency’s food service since 1998.

That had not changed. However, the cafeteria’s manager of 16 years retired in December. Two months later, a cafeteria in which previous inspections found few issues faced a substantial list of troubles.

“Apparently there were some challenges with the new manager,” Terpening said, “and so the company hired another new manager.”

In an email, CFM district manager Mark Slater wrote that he could not comment on personnel issues, “but we are confident that we now have the right team in place.”

The company’s five-year contract to run the Ecology Department’s cafeteria comes up for renewal in 2018. It allows CFM to run the food service in exchange for giving 10 percent of any profits to the agency.

CFM has not reported any profits or paid the department in “the past several years,” Terpening said.

Its problems in the state building appear to have reached a satisfactory outcome for the environmentally minded officials to whom CFM caters. A March 2 re-inspection found no violations.

Wednesday, the day the list of violations appeared in The Olympian’s regular list of restaurant inspection outcomes, Terpening even went down to the cafeteria himself for a plate of tater tots.

He reported no troubles afterward. He said he lacked expertise to assess whether the cafeteria has improved from a customer’s perspective.

“Most of the time, I bring my own lunch,” Terpening said.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally