San Diego State University is one of the public colleges in the county that runs its own food inspection program. Photo by Sam Hodgson

As much as local diners would probably rather not think about it, food poisoning is an unavoidable, if rare, risk that comes with eating out.

For most, those unlucky incidents end with an uncomfortable night, a visit to the pharmacy and maybe a call to the San Diego County Environmental Health Department, which inspects restaurants for safety and cleanliness.

However, for students, employees and visitors at local public universities, that’s not the place to call.

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Public universities police the safety and cleanliness of their own retail food inspections. inewsource found none with lower than an “A” rating in recent years.

Colleges in the California State University and University of California systems have the option to establish their own environment, health and safety departments. These departments do everything from managing asbestos to handling hazardous waste, including inspecting restaurants on campus.

The three public universities in San Diego County — University of California San Diego, San Diego State University and Cal State San Marcos — all have a health and safety department as well as a certified environmental health specialist on staff or on contract.

inewsource obtained the most recent food inspection reports for all three campuses. UCSD and CSUSM provided records from 2012 through 2015, while SDSU said it only had the most recent records, mostly from 2014.  A review of records for 115 restaurants, coffee shops and kitchens showed all received “A” grades.

Inspectors noted a few major infractions — a moldy jar of mayo, signs of cockroaches in a kitchen and dirty food surfaces — but none were considered serious enough to pull the “A” rating down.

There is no mandatory timetable for inspections, and some retail food establishments at SDSU haven’t been examined since 2011 and 2012. Two Aztec Market stores, which are convenience stores on campus, were inspected Feb. 26, after inewsource requested the most recent inspection records.

Click here to see all of the original inspection records

Last year, the three universities conducted a combined 103 food inspections, including 13 investigations and re-inspections. Only SDSU’s Aztec Market in Chapultepec Hall, a residence hall on campus, hasn’t been inspected since late 2011.

UCSD had the most places to inspect: 62 establishments that were either restaurants, grocery stores or markets. One was a food co-op. UCSD establishments had the lowest average score, almost 95, while 43 establishments on the SDSU campus had the highest average with a 97. CSUSM split the difference with a 96 among 13 establishments.

Mike Haller is the Food and Pool Safety Program manager in Orange County. He’s an expert on California Retail Food Code enforcement and oversees a county with self-enforcing universities. He said the rules for college health departments are the same as those for other inspection agencies.

“The CSUs and the UCs that have their own environmental health programs actually follow the exact same law that we use to regulate health and sanitation standards,” he said.

For administrators at SDSU and CSUSM, being in charge of the campus inspections means they have more at stake than county inspectors do.

Jessica Rento, associate vice president of administration at SDSU, said people who get sick at a campus eatery are going to be upset with the university as well as the restaurant. That reflects poorly on the university.

“When the county goes and inspects the food facility, they don’t have to worry about what happens the next day or the day after,” Rento said. “Here at San Diego State, we do.”

Regina Frasca, director of safety, risk and sustainability services at CSUSM, agreed.

If a student gets sick, “it’s going to be in the media as ‘this occurred at CSUSM,’” she said. “So that can be very damaging to the university’s reputation, as well as the fiscal cost that we would incur.”

At SDSU, most retail establishments are operated by Aztec Shops, an SDSU auxiliary. Both UCSD and CSUSM operate at least some of the retail food facilities on their campuses.

“(At CSUSM) we have that third-party liability no matter what our contract says,” Frasca said, noting that the university is the landowner for those eateries. That means the university could be sued over a violation.

According to Frasca, the university is self-insured through the CSU system. That means that an incident that requires an insurance payout could have a financial impact beyond the individual university.

UCSD declined multiple interview requests.

Administrators at SDSU and CSUSM said there are advantages to doing food inspections themselves. When inspectors spend more time on campus, they can keep an eye on food facilities more regularly than an annual inspection would allow. They can also better educate the staff at those eateries.

“There’s a closer working relationship between our department and all the auxiliaries on campus,” said Terry Gee, director of environmental health and safety at SDSU.

Currently, food inspections at CSUSM are handled by an outside contractor, although the university considered asking the county to handle inspection duties on campus.

“When we were building our university student union we reached out to the county and I had probably three different conversations with them,” Frasca said.

“After looking at our needs and our aggressive timeline, we really decided that it was in our best interests to employ our own staff,” she said.

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Behind the story: After hearing that several people got sick eating at a new restaurant near SDSU, inewsource delved into food inspection reports and the system for regulating eateries on campus. Turns out the restaurant in question was not actually on campus, but we found other newsworthy incidents, including a cockroach infestation at a hospital in Hillcrest. Search our database of more than 100 inspections of eateries on local campuses.

Frasca said the contracted inspectors are all registered health specialists who have been working with the university since 2011. She said the university plans to eventually hire a staff inspector to handle those duties in-house.

Once a year, or more

The California Retail Food Code — better known as CalCode — is followed by college and county food inspectors. It doesn’t require a specific frequency for inspections. Instead, it allows the enforcing agency to conduct inspections based on risk and need.

“It could be once a year or twice a year.” Frasca said. “It just depends on the risk that’s associated with this facility.”

Restaurants and establishments that prepare food on the spot are considered higher risk than establishments selling prepackaged food.

Millie Tran, associate director of environmental health and safety at SDSU, said the department plans to turn its attention to pre-packaged food sales by the end of spring 2015.

“We want to prioritize the high-risk food facilities, but we certainly do not want to neglect or forget those facilities,” Tran said. “They’re still permitted, so we still have to be at that facility and assess their compliance with the food code.”

Leonardo Castañeda was a reporter and economic analyst for inewsource. To contact him with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email leocastaneda [at] inewsource [dot] org.