NC health inspections; yuck factor vs. illness factor

While it might be nice to know whether there has been an insect problem or some flies at a restaurant (for yuck reasons), I’d prefer to know about how well the staff manages the recognized foodborne illness risk factors: improper cooking temps; improper storage/holding temps; handwashing and hygiene; cross-contamination and safe sources.

Or whether the place sends people home when they are ill.

Mike Baker of the Raleigh AP desk wrote a couple of articles over the weekend (here and here) detailing an analysis of the health inspection reports across North Carolina and weird findings.

I agree with and like my friend Angie Fraser’s quote in one of Mike’s articles saying that it’s hard to figure out exactly what scores mean. Angie was quoted as saying the scores are meaningless to her because the system doesn’t focus enough on violations that are a risk to public health.  "A critical violation is a risk factor," said Dr. Angela Fraser, a food-safety education specialist at Clemson University who previously served on an advisory committee related to North Carolina’s sanitation ratings. "If a risk factor is present, it’s not a Grade A restaurant in my mind."

I’d even take it one step further and say that I’d love to see information about the critical violation right on the posted score. Or add a smart barcode to it so I can scan it and see the full report myself. I’m all about more information instead of less. When I’m really interested in the inspection history of the place before I go, I currently I check the Wake County website. But a resource like this isn’t available for all counties.

When Mike and I chatted a bit about his investigation one of the things we focused on was a disparity the perception of risks between the yuck factor (which patrons really seem to want to know about) and evidence-based factors that lead to foodborne illness. Roaches seem to mean more than cross-contamination to folk.

That’s a pretty good indicator that we’re failing as food safety communicators. It’s not that patrons don’t get it and it’s okay to laugh off how dumb they are when it comes to them getting it wrong. It’s more about food safety professionals not being compelling enough with messages around more serious risks.


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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.