County set to debate whether posting placards will harm restaurants

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Jim Roberts of the Champaign-Urbana Health District holds up a sample placard as county board members discussed whether restaurants in the county should be required to display inspection placards on August 21, 2014.

By Claire Everett/ — Whether a restaurant in Champaign County should have to tell customers if it failed its health inspection is still up for debate.

As of January, food establishments in the cities of Champaign and Urbana were required to post colored placards that signified whether they passed their inspections.

A green placard means it passed, yellow that it failed and must be re-inspected, and red that its inspection was so bad it was closed.

However, the County Board initially excluded other food establishments in the county from the new ordinance because of concerns that the placards would hurt profits at smaller, rural establishments.

But the board will take up the issue again next week at its Sept. 18 meeting after a presentation last month from Jim Roberts, director of environmental health for the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District.

At last month’s county board meeting, Roberts said his staff did a recent study that showed that food establishments in the county that voluntarily posted the green “satisfactory compliance” placards did better on their restaurant inspections. He argued that mandatory placards would improve conditions at establishments and thus, inspection scores.

From January to June, the environmental health department conducted 170 health inspections outside the cities and 86 of those food establishments voluntarily posted placards, according to the study.

Of the 86 establishments that voluntarily posted placards, 51 percent posting were restaurants and 25 percent were schools and daycares. The rest were in miscellaneous categories such as convenient stores, nursing homes and taverns.

The study showed that food establishments that voluntarily posted placards from January to June received an average adjusted score of 88 out of 100 on their health inspections.

During that time period, nine food establishments failed inspections in the county. Restaurants that failed received an average adjusted score of 23.  Three out of the nine voluntarily posted placards.

But Champaign county board member Rachel Schwartz said she believes that posting a placard would not cause a difference in inspection results.

“I don’t think you can take voluntary systems and conclude from that if you make it mandatory things will go the same way,” she said. “Obviously there’s a self selection bias—those who post wanted to post.”

Some county board members also said posting placards would hurt business for food establishments in rural areas as the placards would further jeopardize businesses where there are fewer customers.

Board member James Quisenberry was concerned about the validity of the study since he believed Roberts and his team had a clear bias towards the placard system.

“Even if the numbers that you put together were statistically valid, you can’t look at the study as that was created and done in what I would call an impartial way,”  Quisenberry said.

Roberts acknowledged that he was an advocate for the placard system.

But board member Stan James argued that having the placard system was of value to customers.

“I’m a person I don’t want to see any more government regulation than is needed, and we’re not causing any more regulation,” James said. “All we’re doing is we’re posting something simple for us country folks to read instead of reading a 15 page report about items that may be of no concern to us.”

Before Alan Kurtz, chair of the board, concluded the discussion he also advocated for the placard system.

“I dare say there isn’t anyone in this room who owned a restaurant franchise chain expect for me,” said Kurtz. “I can tell you that whatever I can do to make it safer for my customers that walk in the door, that means the bottom line profitability gets better.”

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