September 9, 2011

Champaign County restaurants fail inspections but public never told

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Geovanti’s Bar & Grill on Green Street failed its restaurant inspections five times from September 2008 through February of this year.

But no one who eats there would ever know, unless they took the initiative to request copies of the popular Campustown restaurant’s inspection reports from the local health department.

That’s because, unlike many other counties and cities in central Illinois and across the country, the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District currently does not publicize in any form the results of about 1,300 inspections it conducts each year at restaurants, cafeterias and other food-service facilities.

Jim Roberts, the environmental health director for the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, said one reason it is taking so long to make restaurant inspections available online is because he has other duties with higher priorities.But he also cites a years of difficulties with obtaining the right computer software system.

“First, we had to make sure the system was working as we wanted it to,” he said in August. “The second thing is that I don’t have a project manager to do this, so I do this as time permits me to do so.”

Until 2007, the district used INSPEX, a 1988 software program, to store information on the old technology of 3-by-5-inch floppy disks, Roberts said. The agency keeps these disks on file because state law requires the agency to keep five years’ worth of inspection information.

The agency does not publish inspections results on its website, c-uphd.org. It doesn’t require restaurants to post scores in their establishments. Nor does it send inspection scores to be printed or broadcast in the local media.

This means the dining public has no way easy way of knowing about health-code violations, such as the live and dead cockroaches found during a November 2009 inspection at Geovanti’s.

The public wouldn’t know about the “black moldy slime” found on the walls and ceiling of a walk-in cooler in July 2008 at the now-shuttered Garcia’s Pizza in a Pan on Green Street. Nor would the public be aware of the unsanitary conditions Garcia’s Mattis Avenue location – including a hand sink growing mold – that prompted a health inspector to declare, “The facility is filthy!” on an October 2009 inspection report.

Nor would it know of the major violations that resulted in one out of 10 eateries having failed an inspection during a recent four-year period.

Restaurant inspections take place because unsanitary conditions can lead to food-borne illnesses such as salmonella, E. coli and Hepatitis A. Symptoms of food-borne illnesses – which can resemble the intestinal flu – include abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever and dehydration, according to the National Institutes of Health.

After a series of Freedom of Information requests from University of Illinois journalism students and CU-CitizenAccess.org, the district released a random sample of restaurant inspection reports from April 2007 through April 2011. It also released reports for the 108 food establishments that failed inspections during that period, 39 of which – including Geovanti’s and the two Garcia’s locations – failed multiple times.

Of the restaurants that failed during that time, 20 had their permits suspended, a review of inspection records shows. The Iron Post bar and the now-closed Margarita’s Mexican restaurant, both in Urbana, each had their permits suspended twice.

The district will suspend a restaurant’s permit if the establishment receives a negative score on a scale of zero to 100 during a routine inspection; if the restaurant fails an unannounced reinspection after failing the first time; or if inspectors find code violations that are an imminent risk to public health. (See online map to learn more about the inspection and scoring process.)

The district also does not publish any notices when a restaurant’s permit is suspended. It does, however, post a listing on its website of new restaurants it has granted permits.

“If you go into a restaurant and it’s open, we’ve been in there, and they’ve passed,” Julie Pryde, the district’s public health administrator, said. “There are times where you’ll go to a restaurant, and it will not be open. It may not say, ‘Closed by the health department’ on the front door, but if it’s not open, that’s because there’s an immediate health risk.”

Plans to publicize not fulfilled

Champaign County public health officials have long said they want to make available online information about inspections that the district’s six full-time sanitarians and one part-timer conduct, but so far they have not.

Since 2008, officials have spoken about plans for a website that would allow consumers to look up inspection records. In a recent interview, officials said they hope to launch the site early next year, but they have stated similar goals in the past and failed to meet them.

Pryde said she wants to redesign restaurant health permits to include QR codes – those square, black-and-white boxes similar to barcodes – which customers could scan with their smartphones to access a restaurant’s most recent inspection report on the district’s website.

Pryde said that giving consumers incomplete information about how restaurants perform on inspections does not do the public any good.

“Give them all the information or no information at all,” she said.

In contrast, nearby McLean County has had restaurant inspection scores posted on a website for more than a decade, and neighboring Vermilion County requires restaurant owners to post letter grades from their most recent inspections in their establishments alongside their health permits.

But Pryde called such letter-grade systems – also used in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere – “completely worthless.”

“There are so many things that are variables that impact whether or not you’re going to get sick at a restaurant, and the biggest being, have you washed your own hands?” Pryde said. “Somebody’s just going to look at the letter. They’re not going to bother to look behind the letter … to see what that actually might mean.”

She added, “We want to go beyond that.”

Before a redesign in 2005, the Champaign-Urbana district’s website listed the number of critical health-code violations found during inspections. But the process of posting them was labor intensive, and manually entering information sometimes resulted in errors, officials said.

Searchable database available in McLean County

But in McLean County, home of Bloomington-Normal and Illinois State University, restaurant inspection scores and the number of health-code violations found during each inspection are posted in a searchable database on the county’s website. The information has been online for more than a decade.

While diners aren’t able to view complete inspection reports, they are at least able to see how restaurants have scored on a 100-point scale.

McLean County Health Department officials have said the database is easily maintained and updates itself automatically every morning. They say the community appreciates the easy accessibility of the health inspections and that it is the most popular feature on their website.

McLean isn’t the only central Illinois make information about its inspections available online.

Macon and Sangamon counties, homes to Decatur and Springfield, respectively, also post inspection scores. The Sangamon County Department of Public Health website even allows users to view descriptions of violations found during its inspections.

But it was not until CU-CitizenAccess.org renewed its investigation of the issue this year that the district formally asked its current database provider, Garrison Enterprises, to put the scores and inspection reports online.

Regardless of the work involved in making inspection reports available online, the district hasn’t used low-tech methods to inform the public about the cleanliness of the restaurants where they eat.

Restaurants post grades in Vermilion County

Since 2003, neighboring Vermilion County has required all restaurants to post a certificate that lists their most recent inspection score and a large letter grade, along with their food-service certificates.

 

The move was geared toward “educating the public about the quality and cleanliness of restaurants,” said Doug Toole, director of environmental health.

“A lot of what restaurants do is behind the scenes,” he said. “Folks come into a place, figure the dining room is clean, and the bathroom is clean, it must be a safe place. We’re the ones checking all the rooms, checking food quality.”

Until January 2003, the Vermilion County Health Department kept a restaurant’s inspection report on file and gave a copy to the owner. The public could access it by calling or visiting the health department.

“We kept it in our records, it is all public, but there was no way the public could easily see what it was,” Toole said. “If anyone called up the health department and asked they could (get the information), but few people did that. More people pay attention to the scorecard that was posted.”

The inspection score is based on a point system and a 45-item checklist, with each item valued between one and five points. A grade below a C, or less than 70 points, is grounds for closure. To reopen, a food facility must receive a high A, with an A being awarded to those with inspection scores between 90 and 100 points.

Though the public can see the inspection score and letter grade on a scorecard, it does not give detailed information about the points.

To help make this information readily available, Toole said the health department is looking at other websites that publish food inspections with more detailed information.

“The scorecard is good, but I would rather know a place scored a 95 because of five little problems rather than one five-point problem (such as improper food temperature),” Toole said.

Restaurant owners’ view

Some restaurant owners say they have no problem with the results being publicized. Others say it will hurt business. But they do not complain about the inspections themselves.

In separate interviews, the owners of Geovanti’s and Garcia’s said the fact that their restaurants are open for business means health inspectors have been visited their restaurants and that any problems they identified have been resolved.

Ralph Senn and business partner Joe Ream – also known as the Flying Tomato Brothers – started the Garcia’s Pizza chain in 1971.

“After 40 years, (the health inspectors are) very, very diligent,” Senn said. “If they think you are safe and you should be open, they, of course, continue your license and allow you to continue with of a list of things, ‘Let’s focus on this or let’s improve on this.’ ”

Senn added, “I don’t think the public needs to know that. The important thing is we’re making food continuously safely.”

Manny Martinez is executive chef of Destihl Restaurant and Brew Works, which has locations in Champaign and Normal. Inspection scores for the Normal restaurant are posted on the McLean County Health Department website.

Martinez said the scores can be deceiving because they don’t tell customers whether a restaurant lost points for major violations or for several minor violations that might have little to do with sanitation.

But overall, he said he doesn’t mind the information being available to the public.

“For a restaurant, it doesn’t really matter to us, as long as we know we’re doing a good job, and we get inspected and we’re doing a great job,” Martinez said.

Proper sanitation good for health and business

Beth Reutter teaches a food-service-sanitation course in the University of Illinois Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.

She also teaches an online course that many restaurant employees take to earn their food-service certification through the state. She said having employees trained in proper sanitation methods is important for public health – and for business.

“Aside from it being the law that they have to have somebody there, it’s just good business practice to be able to put into place the rules of the food-service code,” Reutter said. “You could look at it as protecting the public.

“More importantly, from a management point of view, is keeping themselves in business,” she said. “It’s been proven time and again that if you have a food-borne outbreak, you may survive it, but chances are you won’t.”

Pryde said letter grades can give diners a “false sense of security.”

“That restaurant could have a … big, old shiny A and have been just perfect,” she said. “That doesn’t mean there’s not going to be a food-borne outbreak the next day. Look what happened at Jimmy John’s.”

Late last year, a salmonella outbreak was tied to alfalfa sprouts served at the Champaign-based sandwich chain.

“(The) restaurant was fine,” Pryde said. “They brought in sprouts from a distributor, and the sprouts were contaminated. Boom, we had an outbreak.

“So people look at Jimmy John’s like, ‘Oh, there’s something wrong with them,’ when really it had nothing to do with them,” she said. “It had to do with the sprouts.”

Reutter, the sanitation instructor, agrees that letter grades or numeric inspection scores by themselves can be misleading.

“Your inspection is only a snapshot of time for however long the inspector was there and however long it takes you to remedy any of the problems that they may find,” Reutter said. “So that A letter can be in your restaurant for six months, but it only depicts the day that the inspector was there, so it’s a false sense of security going into a restaurant.”

Reutter said diners should use grades or scores as one piece of information when deciding where to eat but not view them as a reflection of a restaurant’s overall business.

“I wouldn’t be so quick to judge any restaurant whose score is published because that’s their local law,” she said. “Those scores are just a moment in time.

“If you hear good things about the restaurant overall, then it’s probably a great place to eat. If they’re well involved in the community, that is also a sign that they’re a good place to eat,” Reutter said. “But that moment in time, you just don’t know what’s going on.”

Because the Illinois Department of Public Health does not require business owners to post their scores online or in their restaurants, the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District does not either, Roberts said. However, he has encouraged business owners to post copies of their inspection reports in their restaurants.

Allen Strong, the longtime owner of Courier Café and Silvercreek Restaurant in Urbana, said he wouldn’t object to displaying a letter grade, but he doesn’t plan to post full inspection reports in his establishments.

“I wouldn’t do that because what happens with that is people that don’t understand, I think, would misread that,” said Strong, whose restaurants did not fail any inspections during the four-year period. “They would misread situations that might be a so-called ‘critical violation’ to the health department, but the reality is that it’s a really minor thing, and I don’t think we need to bring the public into the kitchen to expose them to the backside.

“A lot of what we do in this business is romance,” he said. “You’re selling ambiance and you’re selling an environment and you’re selling an experience, and I’m not sure people want that much of an experience.”

County Board of Health president declines to comment

To make posting reports a requirement, the Champaign County Board of Health would have to pass a new rule.

President Bobbi Scholze declined requests to be interviewed about health-inspection policies, including, for example, why the board does not require restaurants to post letter grades from their inspections.

“This notion has not been presented to the County Board of Health so I would have no knowledge of it, therefore there is no reason to meet,” Scholze wrote in response to an interview request sent by email. “I am sorry but I have no opinion to share with you.

“Each time the County Board of Health meets we allow input on agenda and non-agenda items. If there is something you would like to share with the CBOH you can voice your issue there.”

Roberts said he believes if restaurants would post their reports, they would have a “competitive advantage” after consumers learn that their eateries are sanitary.

He hasn’t seen any restaurants take the suggestion.

“I was kind of hoping that it would get the information out to the public and that it would be industry motivated and that people would toot their horn,” Roberts said.

How to obtain a restaurant inspection report

The public can obtain copies inspection reports for specific restaurants by calling the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District’s Environmental Health Division at (217) 373-7900, emailing eh@c-uphd.org or visiting the district’s offices at 201 W. Kenyon Road, Champaign.

Depending on the number of reports being sought, you may be asked to file a Freedom of Information request with one of the district’s Freedom of Information officers:

Patricia Robison
Freedom of Information Officer
Address: 201 W. Kenyon Road
Champaign, IL 61820
Phone: (217) 531-4257
Fax: (217) 531-4343
Email: probinson@c-uphd.org

Tammy Hamilton
Deputy Freedom of Information Officer
Address: 201 W. Kenyon Road
Champaign, IL 61820
Phone: (217) 531-2905
Fax: (217) 373-7905
Email: thamilton@c-uphd.org

Linda Smith
Deputy Freedom of Information Officer
Address: 201 W. Kenyon Road
Champaign, IL 61820
Phone: (217) 531-4265
Fax: (217) 531-4343
Email: lsmith@c-uphd.org

The district asks that those filing Freedom of Information requests use this form, which is also available on the district’s website athttp://www.c-uphd.org/freedom-of-information.html.

CU-CitizenAccess reporter Pam Dempsey and UI journalism alumnus Steve Contorno contributed to this report.