Public Health Begins Posting Restaurant Inspections
By Pam G. Dempsey
Public health officials in Champaign County have spent three years studying how to best publicize restaurant inspection results. Though still under much discussion, the county is now offering Champaign diners a small appetizer of these results on the health district’s website.
The county health district is posting online 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.
The reports are a single document posted each month that list every inspection the health department conducted along with the status of the restaurant’s health permit.
A “good standing” label means that the facility scored 36 points or higher on a 100-point scale, but the district still isn’t giving the public the actual scores.
“I think that publicizing the inspection reports is a good idea,” said Julie Pryde, the 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 has 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.
Jim Roberts, who heads the local inspection program, began posting the documents in June.
“I think people often times want to know if a place has been inspected and also where it stands, and its either in good standing or it needs to be re-inspected or its been suspended or inactive,” Roberts said.
Roberts said the move is meant to be an interim solution until the health department begins posting full inspection reports online , though no date has been set to start doing so. The department has been discussing how to post reports since first being questioned about it four years ago by student reporters.
So while diners can review the status of the restaurant’s health permit, they still won’t see the scores.
Instead, health permits labeled “re-inspection required” are given to restaurants that score below 36 points – a failing score. But the district does not tell you what that means.
Meanwhile, the status of health permits of restaurants that were closed due to scores below 0 are labeled “suspended.”
Roberts hopes to get feedback on this move as officials continue studying how to best publicize restaurant inspection scores.
“It’s always my thought and intention to put the full report on the website and maybe that’s what people don’t want , maybe… this enough information provided and this is what they are looking for,” he said.
Though it is common elsewhere, Champaign County does not require restaurants or other food retail facilities to post notices or placards of any inspection result.
Other communities that have begun placard programs have seen results. Take Los Angeles County in California. Health officials there began requiring restaurant owners to post a placard with results in the late 1990s. That was also when the health department began posting inspection results online and introduced a new corresponding letter-grade system.
Angelo Bellomo is the director of LA County’s environmental health department. He 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.
“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.
Los Angeles county’s scoring system is based on a 100-point scale, with points deducted for violations.
It is not unlike Champaign County’s system. The big difference, 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.
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.
He 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.
“Nevertheless I think the trend is for more transparency and the public is certainly demanding it,” Lineberry said.
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.
Pryde said the department 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.