September 25, 2012

Health officials pursue publicizing restaurant inspections

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By Pam G. Dempsey/CU-CitizenAccess — By as early as next year, health inspections of restaurants throughout Champaign County may be one of three colors – green, yellow or red.

At a joint study session Tuesday night, members of the boards of health for the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District and Champaign County gave public health officials the go-ahead to pursue a new notification system that would require restaurant owners to post a color-coded placard based on the results of health inspections.

The move would require an ordinance change by both the county and public health district.

As of now, restaurant owners and other food-retail facility operators are not required to post any result from a health inspection.  Board members have discussed publicizing results of restaurant inspections for the past four years.

CU-CitizenAccess posts the full report of all failed health inspection, including score, here.

Jim Roberts oversees health inspections for all retail food establishments within the county and public health district. Food facilities, such as dorm dining halls and restaurants on University of Illinois property are overseen by the university.

Roberts said he would prefer the notification change to be consistent across all three agencies – the county and the health district as well as buy-in from the university.

“We would like the same message to go out no matter where you ate in Champaign County,” Roberts said.

The color-code option was the more detailed of six notification options that Roberts presented to the boards of health Tuesday. Other options included requiring the restaurant owner to post a letter-grade or inspection score or post the full inspection report in a conspicuous place.

Health board members felt that posting the full inspection report in a restaurant would be too cumbersome for the public to review onsite; instead favoring the option of viewing it online.

Public health officials have been critical of requiring restaurant owners to post a score or letter-grade saying that it did not give “meaningful information” and was “arbitrary.”

As of now, restaurant owners and other food-retail facility operators are not required to post any result from a health inspection.

The only way a consumer can know the results of a health inspection is either by requesting the information from the health district via a Freedom of Information Act request or by visiting the health department’s new online reports, which is a single document posted every month that summarizes the results of all the inspections conducted during that month.

The online summary does not post the score listed in the full inspection report, but instead post the status of each health inspection.

Officials say a “good standing” label on their posting means that the facility scored 36 points or higher on a 100-point scale.

 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.  A “re-inspection” label means that the restaurant scored between 0 and 36 points – a score that requires a re-inspection within 30 days.

In August, six restaurants failed inspections, including Chicago FC Express in Rantoul, which scored -24 points and was shut down on Aug. 6.

The restaurant was closed for 14 critical violations, including heavily soiled surfaces and excessive flies that prompted the inspector to note “every surface was covered in flies.”

It reopened on Aug. 20 with a score of 96 points and no critical violations.

The color-coded system is based on the health district’s new online inspection summary that indicates if a restaurant’s permit is in good standing, needs re-inspection or suspended.

The proposed color-coded system would correspond to the summaries now – with “good standing” getting a green placard, “re-inspection required” getting a yellow placard, and “suspended” getting a red placard.

The scores would still not be posted, but a list of violations deemed critical, such as “employees working while Ill” and “allowing contamination by hands” are on each placard.  Inspectors would note on the placard which ones the restaurant failed.

“I think it gives people the most information,” said Bobbi Scholze, president of Champaign County’s Board of Health. “I think it is educative and so people can understand, I think it is something people can understand.”

The permits would also include a QR code for consumers who wish to connect directly to the health department’s website and ultimately, the full inspection report.

Roberts told board members that the health department is nearing completion on putting the reports online and that would include additional information, such as a trend report and a summary of critical violations.

Public health officials plan to present the proposed color-code option as well as draft ordinances to members of the Champaign County Board in January.

This could also include a fine structure for non-compliance.

“I’m all for teeth,” said county board member Stan James.