What if you build it and they don’t come? Louisiana restaurant disclosure still sucks

 Matt Sigur of The Daily Advertiser writes that six months after an investigation detailed a series of broken promises and a culture of putting business interests ahead of the consumers it is charged with protecting, little has changed at the state Department of Health and Hospitals.

Louisiana remains one of the weakest states in the nation when it comes to making restaurant inspections understandable, relevant and accessible.

A website hastily launched during the final days of the paper’s original investigation sits largely unknown and unused.

At a press conference in August, DHH Secretary Bruce Greenstein proudly debuted Eat Safe as a commitment to transparency and public safety and promised that this was just the beginning, that a more complete and robust site was less than three months away.

Now six months after that promise, nothing has changed.

The site remains, but because of its limited usefulness and DHH’s decision not to promote it, the numbers argue it is dying a slow death. In August, the site recorded more than 560,000 page views. In October, the number fell to 52,000. In January, the number fell again, to 19,837. The Louisiana Restaurant Association, a powerful lobby in the state and a group whose mission is to look out for the best interests of restaurants, was granted multiple "stakeholder" meetings on what information the site would make available, and in Greenstein’s own words has a "collaborative and close relationship" with DHH.

Greenstein brushes off critics who argue he has no interest of making the site useful or successful and accuse him of just going through the motions to dodge pressure on the issue.

Stu Gonsoron, project manager for Bailey’s Catering, a full service offshore and inland catering company, says there’s no reason for the update delays or lack of marketing of Eat Safe.

"There’s nothing to it, but to do it," Gonsoron said. "I don’t know if there’s too much red tape. There’s no excuse for them to not have made this more accessible and given consumers more awareness about this program. It is upsetting."

For Tyler Thigpen Cochran, a member of Acadiana Food Circle, which works to help consumers connect with local producers and educate the public on healthy, local food choices, the tardiness "doesn’t bode well" for DHH.

"It seems like the website should get priority," Cochran said. "If you want people to know about it, you put it on the web."

Doug Powell, a Kansas State professor and food safety expert, said the lack of promotion for Eat Safe is questionable.

"It’s a reflection of how serious the whole process is taken by elected officials and public servants," Powell said. "Some states and municipalities actively promote their disclosure systems. Others quietly put it up on the web, and those with a vested interest go digging."