The Perspective

Public Health Flashback:
Mark Gillespie

Which comes first? The salmonella or the egg?

Perhaps the best person to answer that question is environmental health specialist Mark Gillespie, one of the investigators who helped prove that salmonella can exist in an egg in vitro. The discovery was a result of an investigation following a massive outbreak at a Henderson restaurant in the 1990s.

A virtual Las Vegas native, Mark is no stranger to the rapidly growing community that is now 40 times larger than it was when he arrived in 1952. The growing pains haven’t always been easy either, as Mark had to adjust to a new school almost every year due to rezoning and relocating.

Mark’s career at the health district started in 1979 when he was hired as a sanitarian. (The job title was later changed to environmental health specialist, Mark explains, because people associated the word ‘sanitarian’ with solid waste.) After 3 years of public service, Mark dabbled a bit in the private sector and eventually returned to the health district in 1986.

Mark explains that 27 years in the food safety field have given him some great and not-so-great experiences.

On the great side, Mark went undercover for the USDA to shut down an illegal slaughterhouse in Bunkerville, a small town in the northwest corner of Clark County. Using their garage as a slaughterhouse, the offenders ground up road kill and other wild animals to sell as ground beef at the grocery store. While incognito, Mark purchased some of the ground meat-product using food stamps. After testing the meat, the USDA confirmed the presence of animal hair from species that aren’t normally consumed by humans and used the results to permanently close the facility.

On the not-so-great side, Mark was once featured on the evening news after shutting down an illegal vendor, which consisted of two kids selling lemonade on a busy intersection. During another inspection Mark was chased out of the kitchen by someone brandishing a meat cleaver. One of Mark’s least favorite days on the job was when he was forced to close a landmark restaurant, where he fondly remembers going as a child.

Relationships with customers have changed in recent years, especially since the economic downturn, says Mark. Many small business owners are strapped for cash, and when faced with a potential downgrade or additional expenses and fines, tempers flare and emotions ensue (which might explain the man with the meat cleaver). Mark emphasizes that the way inspectors deal with clients and perform inspections has remained much the same, though modern-day inspections are more thorough, which means greater protection of the public’s health.

The tools inspectors use have also evolved and are space-aged compared to what Mark used in 1979. The bulb flashlight has been replaced with an LED flashlight; the instant Polaroid camera with the digital camera; the oversized thermometer with the infrared thermometer; and the pager with the cell phone.

The tools aren’t the only evolution that has occurred in the field. When Mark first started, the field was dominated by older men who thought women belonged in the kitchen, not inspecting it! Mark is grateful that those attitudes have changed over time as the workforce has become more diverse. The number of inspectors has increased from 24 in the 1980s to almost 90. He misses the camaraderie of yesteryear, which has dwindled due to the massive growth of the program and community.

While the method of inspection is virtually unchanged, the consequences for an unsavory grade have become more costly. Back in the day, it was rare to close down a food establishment because of the loss of revenue to the owner. Instead of accruing fees for re-inspection or closure, the operators simply had 48 hours to fix the violations before they were required to post a downgrade. Unfortunately that method was abused, as establishments waited to comply with regulations until they were faced with a potential downgrade.

Great day or not, Mark enjoys the different experiences each and every one brings in the field. “It’s always changing and rarely boring,” he said. Mark is a husband, father and avid photographer. He’s also been known to jump out of airplanes in a white sequined suit, but we’ll save that story for another day.

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