September 6, 2012

Health district makes moves toward online restaurant reports; publicizing results still under discussion

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A worker picks up eggs from a refrigerated cooler on Friday, Aug. 31, 2012, at Meatheads Restaurant on South Neil Street in Champaign.

Darrell Hoemann/The News Gazette

A worker picks up eggs from a refrigerated cooler on Friday, Aug. 31, 2012, at Meatheads Restaurant on South Neil Street in Champaign.

After spending four years discussing how to best publicize restaurant inspections, county public health officials are now offering Champaign diners a small appetizer of them.

The Champaign-Urbana Public Health District is posting on its web site the names of the restaurants that have been inspected and whether they need to be re-inspected, but they aren’t saying whether the restaurants have failed inspections and they aren’t posting their inspection scores. And the district does not say clearly whether a restaurant has been closed.

Over the past two months, 14 restaurants have failed in the county. Between September 2011 and June 2011, inspectors have failed at least 55 restaurants and shut down at least 10, according to an analysis of restaurant health inspection records.

Although many other counties and cities post inspection scores, the public health district still does not. And it also does not publish the inspection reports themselves as CU-CitizenAccess.org – an online newsroom – has for the past year after obtaining the reports through Freedom of Information requests.

“I think that publicizing the inspection reports is a good idea,” said Julie Pryde, public health administrator. “I think just publicizing a score may be misleading. A restaurant score is not the same as a grade on a test for example. There is more information that needs to be communicated.”

This summer, the health district began posting a single document on its website each month that lists every inspection the health department conducted, along with the address of the facility, date of inspection, inspection type and health permit status.

Officials say a “good standing” label on their posting means that the facility scored 36 points or higher on a 100-point scale –  scores that are not given to a citizen unless she or he files a Freedom of Information Act.

Without the actual inspection reports , diners do not what the violations are. They do not know about such violations as “multiple live German cockroaches crawling on counters” at one local restaurant.  That report notes that “one that fell out of a paper towel dispenser”. At another restaurant, inspectors noted the “numerous amounts of gnats” present.Meanwhile, the status of health permits of restaurants that were closed due to scores below 0 are labeled “suspended”. A “suspended” status means that the food facility cannot operate and has been closed.

At Big JJ Fish and Chicken on North Market Street, inspectors found live cockroaches during an initial inspection in June as well as a follow up inspection in July. Though the restaurant failed its initial inspection, and barely passed its second, the scores were not low enough to warrant an automatic closure. Inspectors noted on the follow up inspection “please have Terminex contact us for further review.”

Without the scores being posted, it also means that diners would not know of good scores like that of Meatheads Restaurant on Neil Street that had a high 90 points on its July inspection or low scores like that of Tang Dynasty at Lincoln Square that managed a l score of  -29 points its July inspection that prompted immediate closure.

Jim Roberts, who heads the inspections for the county, thinks the county may be doing enough now but, as he has said before, he would like to publish more information.

“I would like to get feedback on that, and then again, it’s always my thought and intention to put the full report on the website and maybe that’s what people don’t want,” Roberts said. “Maybe …this is enough information provided and this is what they are looking for.”

Meanwhile, Roberts says the move is meant to be an interim solution until the health district begins posting full inspection reports online though no date has been set to start doing so.

“I think by having more information, you could be a more informed diner and make a better decision,” Roberts said.

The public health district inspects restaurants and other food retail facilities for both the county and the city.

Pryde said officials will have a joint study session on this issue with both the county and city boards of health in September or October and that health officials will present options that could include a color-code rating system.

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McClean County officials have been posting scores on the Web site for more than 10 years and Vermillion County posts grades of restaurants – ranging from A  to C – in restaurant windows. In Vermilion County, grades below 70 percent, or a C, are closed.

Champaign county’s health district has been discussing how to post reports since first being questioned about it four years ago by student reporters.

One restaurant that was suspended in July was Tang Dynasty. It lost its health permit for eight critical violations that earned it the  -29 points.

Its critical violations included spoiled lettuce, the “multiple live German cockroaches,”  and a broken cooler storing potentially hazardous foods at temperatures seven degrees warmer the 41 degrees or lower requirement, according to an inspection report.

The restaurant’s health permit was suspended for the low score on July 9 and reinstated on July 20 when its inspectors gave it a passing score and allowed the restaurant to reopen.

Another restaurant, First Wok on South Philo Road lost its health permit July 23, even though its failing score was 25 points above 0. That’s because the restaurant had multiple failing scores from previous inspections and was warned in a letter from health inspectors that any additional inspection score below the passing 36 points would mean automatic closure.

First Wok’s failing 25-point score was based on three critical violations, including the “Numerous amount of gnats were present in facility (lack of cleanliness in facility)” and a bucket of chicken not properly cooled.

The restaurant scored 83 points on its re-inspection the very next day and was allowed to reopen.

Though it is common elsewhere, Champaign County does not require restaurants or other food retail facilities to post notices or placards of their  inspection results or of their overall grade such as A, B, or C.

Other communities, such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles County have placard programs.

Los Angeles County, which has a scoring similar system to Champaign’s health district, saw results when officials started a new system.

Health officials there began requiring restaurant owners to post a placard with results in the late 1990s after an investigation by local broadcasters. That was also when the health department began posting inspection results online and introduced a new corresponding letter-grade system.

Angelo Bellomo, director of LA County’s environmental health department, said only 60 percent of restaurants in the area scored high on inspections before the new system was adopted.

Now, he said, at least 85 percent of the restaurants score 90 points or higher.

“I think that public knowledge affects public behavior and restaurant operators have actually noticed fluctuations in the extent to which patrons will visit their facilities based on the letter grading,” Bellomo said.

A CU-CitizenAccess analysis of more than 1,200 Champaign County’s health inspection reports between September 2011 and June 2012 show that only 23 percent of restaurants inspected score 90 points or higher

Los Angeles county’s scoring system is based on a 100-point scale, with points deducted for violations – the more serious the violation, the more points that are deducted.

It’s not unlike Champaign County’s system. The big difference is, however, is what the scores mean.

Two consecutive scores below 70 in Los Angeles County could trigger a review of the restaurant’s health permit or a 14-day closure.

In Champaign County, scores below 36 trigger a re-inspection, and if below 0, automatic closure. Up until the 1990s, restaurants in Champaign County with scores below 70 points were considered failing

Though there are federal recommendations on food codes, called the model food code, jurisdictions can adapt the code however they want. There are no federal standards on scoring – hence the lack of uniformity.

Jeff Lineberry is executive director of the Conference for Food Protection, an advisory group made up of health inspectors and restaurant owners.

County and district health board officials were waiting for guidance from the this year’s The Conference for Food Protection held in Indianapolis on how to best publicize inspection results. No guidance came from that meeting.

Lineberry said scoring systems nationwide range from a number score to letter grades like A, B and C to even color codes – such as red, green and blue.

“There is generally a trend to have more of this done, for there to be instant availability of this information for the public,” Lineberry said.  The trend is “ to have it prominently displayed in a restaurant so the public knows just when they walk in that they have some assurance of safety.”

The debate is, and has been, how to best convey the information from a report that is a snapshot in time.

Lineberry said anything can change between inspections.

He said looking at inspection results over time is a better indicator.

But he said no one has come up with such a system yet.

“Nevertheless I think the trend is for more transparency and the public is certainly demanding it ,” Lineberry said.