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Missoula City-County Health Department
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Frequently Asked Questions: General Food Safety/Education


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Q: Why food safety?

A:  Food safety… well, it’s a big thing, probably bigger than you realize.  Even though the United States is blessed with one of the safest food supplies in the world, every year millions of people get sick from something that they ate or drank.  Even scarier, about 9,000 people in the US die every year from food they assume is safe!  Crazy. 

 While everyone can be victim to food borne illness, it especially affects children under 5, people over 65, and those with chronic health conditions.  Think about your grandparents, or your little one.

 Keeping food safe in restaurants and at home can be simple.  Paying attention to temperatures, hand washing and safe food handling, cleaning, sources, and cross-contamination is key.  Wash hands before handling food and after touching raw meats or unclean items and surfaces; cook items to the proper temperatures and hold them hot (135F or higher) or cool them quickly and hold them at 41F or lower; clean dishes and surfaces; and buy food from safe sources.  It can be just that simple.  To become a food safety guru, attend one of our food safety classes at MCCHD, follow our blog, get our newsletter, or visit the food safety section of our website.


Q:  Does organic mean it won't make me, or someone else sick?

A:  Not necessarily.  While buying organic produce does decrease your potential of being exposed to pesticides and other chemicals or additives, it does not eliminate pathogens that could make you sick.  Following food safety procedures even with organic foods is the only way to guarantee the food will be safe.


Q: What are the main ways to keep food safe?

A:  We call those the “Big Five”: time/temperature controls; proper hand washing and hygiene; watching cross-contamination; cleaning and sanitizing; and buying food from safe sources. 


Q: What do health inspectors look for?

A:  We do risk-based inspections at the Missoula City-County Health Department, which means we focus our assessment on the “Big Five” food safety risk factors, or the things most likely to lead to illness.  While we may not bust out the white glove and check the coving, we will mention facility items and non-critical concerns because they may have the potential to lead to problems in the future.


Q:  Why do I need to wash my produce?

A:  Produce gets exposed to the elements, soil, insects and pests, irrigation water, poor handling, fertilizers and pesticides, and other contaminants during transport.  These can present physical, chemical, and biological contaminants.  Washing is a crucial first step, even if you plan on cooking it later.

Q:  Where can I get my food supplies?

A:  Restaurants must get them from a licensed source, or licensed wholesale supplier like  Costco, B&R, FSA, Sysco, etcetera.  They may also get produce from Farmers’ Markets as long as it is whole and uncut. 


Q:  Do I need to be certified to work in food service in Missoula?

A:  There is nothing in Montana Law that requires certification prior to working in a food establishment; however, Missoula City-County Health strongly encourages it and has many resources and contacts available for you.  Not only is it a great idea for the sake of public health, but also, it helps you do better on your inspections because you already know the critical items that you need to focus on.


Q:  Where can I get food safety training?

A:  There are many agencies that offer training; MCCHD being one of them.  Missoula City-County Health offers classes several times a year for $10 per person that gives an informative and intense session in food safety.  The health department also offers custom 2-4 hour classes at establishments in town, or other desired locations.  In 2012, MCCHD will start offering the 8 hour certification course.  Other food safety partners such as Sysco, FSA, and Montana Restaurant Association also offer food safety training. 

 For upcoming classes, visit our food safety education webpage.


Q:  How much do classes cost?

A:  Our 4 hour class at the health department is $10 per person.  All custom classes are priced by the hour.  If the custom classes are during business hours (8a-5p, Monday through Friday, excluding holidays) they are $50 per hour; if they are during off-hours the cost is $75 per hour. 

 For class costs through other agencies, please contact them directly.


Q:  Why do I always get 'dinged' for my sani bucket being low?

A:  The challenge with sani buckets is that their concentration varies over time.  The more you use them, the more the concentration drops.  The hotter the water you use, the more the chemical will dissipate.


Q: Can I buy my produce at Farmers' Market?

A:  Absolutely-- as long as it is whole and uncut.


Q: The power went out, what do I do?

A:  If you are onsite when it happens, think safety first.  Stop service, determine if there are any hazards in the establishment, do not open any cold holding units so that you can keep the cold air inside, and call the health department!  Believe it or not, you are required to contact us if there is a power failure.  This is so we can be a resource to you. 

 If you are closed when the power goes out things can be a little more tricky.  First of all, safety first: check for any hazards before proceeding.  Next, check all of the thermometers in the cold holding units.  Hopefully the power outage has been brief and temperatures maintained.  Quickly survey to see if foods have thawed in the freezers or risen above 45F in the coolers.  Then, call the health department.  Give us a synopsis of your situation, what you plan on doing, and ask what you should do next to keep food safe. 

 Keep in mind that you cannot operate without power.  It’s simply not safe for you, or the customer.  For more food safety information in a power outage, see our webpage.


Q:  My food is out of temperature.  What do I do?

A: Depends on the situation and how long it has been.  If you refrigeration unit went down overnight and items are above 45F, discard any potentially hazardous items.  This is because you do not know how long foods may have been at unsafe temperatures.

 If you find food out of temperature, but know how long it has been since you removed it from a reliable source of temperature control, you can default to time and discard the food within four hours of the time it left the working unit. Keep in mind that time control only works if you know the time the food leaves safe temperatures and that you must document the time.

 If you are cooling something that is not dropping quickly enough, you have a few options depending on how far along you are in the process.  If you are trying to cool using the two step method, and you miss the 70F mark after two hours, you may either speed up the cooling and bring it to 41F within two hours, or you can reheat to 165F quickly and start over again.


Q:  Why do I need to date label things?

A:  The obvious reason is tracking and giving yourself a way to monitor rotation in your cooler.  The not so obvious reason is a little bugger you can’t see with the naked eye: Listeria monocytogenes, a type of bacterium that can grow reasonably well at refrigeration temperature!  The only way to keep food safe is to monitor how long the bacterium is able to grow.  Date labeling potentially hazardous ready-to-eat foods with the day they are pulled from the manufacturer’s package, or the day you prep them, and then using them within seven days is the only safeguard.  Being vigilant about date labeling, and in turn discarding within the seven days is crucial.  Listeria monocytogenes can be deadly to the elderly, the very young, those with chronic health conditions or immune deficiencies, and can cause miscarriages. 


Q:  I have no water, limited water, or no hot water.  What do I do?

A:  It really depends.  One of the first things you should do is call the health department to find out.  Depending on your situation, we may be able to help you find a way to continue to safely operate, in others, we need to help you understand what your other options are. 

 If your hot water heater goes down and you have a way to heat water and provide enough for hand washing and dishwashing for the menu and volume of business that you have, you may be able to continue to operate.  If you cannot provide hot water by another means, you do need to close.

 If you are on a boil water order, you will need to contact the health department and talk to us about securing a potable water supply for food preparation and hand washing before further service to the public.

 If you have no water at all to your facility, you must close unless you can secure another potable water supply from a water hauler or other such means. 

 Each situation is unique and not all result in closure.  Contact the Health Department to find out how to make things work for you.   You can also visit our website for more information.


Q: Do I have to use gloves?

A:  Well… the answer to that is yes… and no.  The notorious “Glove Rule” in Missoula County is quite misunderstood.  In fact, it says very little about gloves.  What it actually requires is the elimination of bare hand contact with ready-to-eat food, or foods that will not be further cooked or prepped.  This elimination rule really just requires a barrier of some kind whether that be tongs, a spoon, a scoop, a pastry paper, a paper boat, what have you; however, if no other barrier can be feasibly used, gloves are required.  Yes… you read right… you can use whatever you want as long as you don’t touch the food.  If nothing else will work, gloves are needed.

 Keep in mind that gloves are only as effective as the user.  If they are used to touch unclean items, and are not changed when needed, they could be a source of contamination.  Also remember that you do not have to wear gloves when touching utensils or dishes, or when handling something that will be cooked.


Q: How do I calibrate a thermometer?

A:  There are two methods: the boiling point and the freezing point.  The recommended method is the freezing point because it is easy and safe to use and no one needs to adjust the boiling point due to elevation. 

 The freezing point method is simple.  Get a glass, plastic, or ceramic cup.  Fill it with ice and the fill the cup with cold water to the ice line.  Place the thermometer inside the cup for 3-5 minutes swirling occasionally, the check.  If the needle on the dial is no longer dropping, it’s ready.  The thermometer should read 32F.  If it doesn’t, there should be a nut at the base of the dial on a metal stem thermometer, or a button on the back of your digital.  Leaving the stem in the water, adjust the thermometer.  If you thermometer does not have a nut or calibration button and it is off more than 2 degrees.  Buy a new one.


Q:  Can I serve an undercooked burger?

A:  You cannot in Missoula County.  All ground meat products must be cooked through to their minimum internal temperatures.  In the case of ground beef, that is 155F.  If you can meet 155F or higher in the thickest part of the burger for 15 seconds or longer, a still have a little bit of pink, you may serve it, but only if that minimum temperature is reached.


Q:  What should I expect during a health inspection?  What should I do?

A:  First of all, don’t panic.  Easier said than done, but really, think of an inspection as a meeting where we ask you questions, observe and then talk to you about what you are doing well and what you need to improve on.  We view inspections as educational rather than punitive.  We are not there to hit a quota on the number of violations we can find.  We are there to help you streamline your system.  The best way to handle an inspection is to view it as a resource.  Follow the inspector around if you have time.  Ask them questions.  When they point out items that need corrected find out why they are an issue so that you understand the intent of what is being required and can find the best way of meeting it in your establishment.  Using the inspection as a tool is the best utilization of the time.


Q: Why don't you just 'shut a place down'?

A: Being an inspector, it is our duty to protect the public while respecting the rights of local businesses at the same time.  If there is an imminent risk to public health such as the establishment not having water, or if the sewer backs up, then yes, we can immediately close them providing we give them a formal notice.

 If closure is based on repeat critical violations, overall non-compliance, or an illness outbreak, more leg work is required and that takes time.  We have to provide adequate evidence through inspection reports, investigation notes, medical histories, etcetera, to demonstrate that the establishment is a risk to public health.  Working through that system, businesses are protected against unfair closure, and we are able to work with them to get needed violations corrected to protect the public at the same time; however, if we are unable to get critical items corrected, closure will then occur.


Q: As an inspector, you must see a lot... where do you eat?  Where should I avoid?

A:  Well, it’s our job to help an establishment do the best job they can by letting them know what they are doing right, and what they can improve.  We don’t feel it is our job to decide where your business should go—that decision is up to you.  You can however, use our inspection reports to make that decision an informed one.  Yes—our reports are public record.  Feel free to come down the health department and look through the files for your favorite places, or check them out online at www.co.missoula.mt.us/EnvHealth.


Have more questions?  Contact Us!


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