Over 100 restaurants failed inspections in Champaign County in the past two years, but failures hard to find in online database

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Ambar India on Wright Street in Urbana received a red placard in January 2021. Screenshot from Google Street View.

After a routine inspection, only 10 restaurants were closed due to non-compliance with safety regulations and 116 restaurants received food safety alerts for less than satisfactory compliance since 2021 in Champaign County.      

This basic information was obtained in aggregate through a Freedom of Information Act request by CU-CitizenAccess. It covered data from January 1, 2021 to April 10, 2023. But without a request, a consumer must manually scroll through a list of restaurants on the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District’s database, and click on each individual restaurant until one stumbles upon an inspection with a yellow or red placard.

These restaurants and food establishments received a red placard from a routine inspection from Jan. 1, 2021 to April 10, 2023:

  • Ambar India – 605 S Wright Street, Urbana
  • TK’s Cheesesteak (Mobile) @Duo – 722 S Garrard, Rantoul
  • Kona Ice of Champaign No. 2 (Mobile) CO – 1601 S Prospect Avenue, Champaign
  • Tacos Locos (Mobile) @ El Progreso – 1017 W Bloomington Road, Champaign
  • Juanito’s Tacos (Mobile) @ La Mixteca – 510 N Cunningham Ave Ste 4, Urbana
  • Mo’s Burritos No 3 (Mobile) – 705 N Neil Street, Champaign
  • Breaking Taco (Mobile) – 608 E Main Street, Champaign
  • Meet Fresh – 209 E University Avenue Ste D, Mahomet
  • Basil Thai Kitchen – 2000 N Neil Street Spc 716, Champaign
  • Walmart No. 1093 (Deli) – 845 Broad Meadow, Rantoul

Data received did not include red placards from follow-up inspections, such as the one Popeye’s on Bloomington Road received in 2021. CU-CitizenAccess will update this story when the data on follow-ups are made available.

Before 2019, a restaurant was scored on a 100-point scale, with points deducted by the number and the type of violations cited. A restaurant would fail with an adjusted score below 36 and would be shut down if it scored below zero. 

Under the old system, for example, health inspectors closed six restaurants and failed 18 restaurants in the first 10 months of 2018. Although not equivalent, this is similar to six red placards and 18 yellow placards in the new system.

When a restaurant has permanently closed, all of its inspections are removed from the database and are inaccessible to the public, which lowers the number of less than satisfactory or failed inspections in the county database.

But a restaurant can achieve satisfactory compliance, a green placard, despite multiple violations. These can include violations like employees working while ill, which is when food service employees are found to be working with symptoms of diarrhea, vomiting, fever, sore throat and/or jaundice. Moreover, using food from unapproved sources or food in poor condition like raw/uncooked food can still get one a green placard. 

Even poor hygienic practices like employees eating or drinking while preparing foods or using a utensil more than once to taste food can pass off as satisfactory compliance.

Director of Environmental Health Sarah Michaels said the restaurant inspection system was changed due to the adoption of the FDA Food Code by Illinois. 

In response to why fewer restaurants are being closed under the new system, she said there is a, “New enforcement policy that focuses on priority and priority-foundation violations (only).” Violation types are indicated next to each standard being checked on the inspection reports, and also include core and repeat violations.

The color-coded inspection notice placard system indicates satisfactory compliance with the color green, less than satisfactory compliance with the color yellow and non-compliance with the color red. If an establishment receives a red placard, it is considered injurious to public health and its health safety permit is revoked. A yellow means it is subjected to a follow-up inspection within days where it must show satisfactory compliance.

Establishments that receive yellow placards are given the opportunity to improve their compliance through multiple follow-up checks.  

Last month, Maize on 100 N Chestnut received a yellow placard on April 17 and received another yellow during a follow-up on April 24. 

At Maize there were two major violations: a priority violation for food held beyond 7-day use date and a priority foundation violation for improper cold holding temperatures, which were noticed for the third inspection in a row. This resulted in Maize failing its health inspection and it received a yellow placard.

On April 24, both of these violations were repeated and hence Maize inspection status remained yellow. Its placard changed to green on May 3 after it rectified these violations.

A red placard indicates that the establishment is closed with immediate effect. An establishment may appeal this and reopen by significantly improving health and safety standards. Such notices have become rarer in recent years — only 10 have been handed out in the last two years.

On its website, the public health district’s database displays recent results first, can be filtered by date back to 2019 and is only searchable by name. Within each entry, there is a detailed report filled out by inspectors indicating all of the risk and safety factors, and if there was a violation.

Yet it houses no feature to search for the type of inspection notice placard. This makes it time-consuming and difficult for one to quickly obtain information on the safety of restaurants in the area.  

To obtain information on a restaurant that received a yellow placard, one will have to look through the inspection history of each establishment. This is because, in the app, a restaurant’s notice placard updates to green automatically without indicating a previous yellow if it showcases satisfactory compliance on the follow-up inspection. So, at a glance, many restaurants will just show a green placard even if they had a yellow or red in the same week.

But when a restaurant closes for good, such as Blaze Pizza on Prospect Avenue, its existence is wiped from the system, including the detailed inspection reports. If a restaurant receives a red placard and does not reopen or meet compliance, its record is removed from the database and its inspection report is inaccessible. 

Michaels said this is because the file is no longer active and has been closed, but some reports are missing entirely for other reasons. Data obtained indicates Ambar India received a red placard on Jan. 19, 2021 but its inspection history doesn’t indicate this. Michaels said this is because the restaurant had an owner change in April 2021, so its permit number changed, causing the removal of the inspection because it is “not active”.      

Even after many years, obtaining information on restaurant safety in Champaign-Urbana remains a time-consuming and difficult process, often requiring Freedom of Information Act requests or scrolling through a tediously long list of establishments on the public health district’s database. 

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