How safe is a grocery store in Portlandia? It’s not easy to find out

In Cincinnati, Chicago or Washington, D.C., grocery store customers can go online to check out their favorite stores’ latest inspection report.

portlandia-we-can-pickle-thatAt least eight states and many counties and cities across the country post full copies of retail food inspections online. Many other states and municipalities offer online access to, at a minimum, an establishment’s last inspection date and score.

Tracy Loew of the Statesman Journal writes that in Oregon, customers are left in the dark.

Oregon adopted the FDA Food Code, which recommends inspection reports be public documents. But there is no requirement that they be publicly posted or made easily available.

Earlier this year, the Oregon Department of Agriculture created a new database to track food inspections and results. But the system was designed for internal use only, said Mark Stuller, an ODA information systems specialist.

Downloading the data, stored in a program called Filemaker Pro, would take a $30-an-hour analyst at least four hours, Stuller said, as would downloading any updates.

Oregon officials haven’t discussed putting the database online or otherwise making it accessible to consumers, said Frank Barcellos, an ODA food safety program manager.

To get a paper copy of an inspection report, customers must file a formal request under Oregon’s public records law and pay a minimum $15 search fee plus copying costs.

The system is in stark contrast to restaurant inspections, which are available online in Marion and the state’s other most-populous counties.

The Statesman Journal paid $109.50 for copies of inspection reports for the largest stores in Salem and Keizer.

In a follow-up story, leading food safety experts say Oregon officials have a responsibility to make grocery and food processing inspections publicly available.

“The more information you give them, the more consumers are able to make really good decisions to keep themselves safe,” said Bill Marler, a Seattle food-safety lawyer and founder of Food Safety News. “If a grocery store has a bad track record of safety, the public has a right to know that.”

Portlandia_veganOn Sunday, the Statesman Journal reported that while the Oregon Department of Agriculture aims to inspect grocery stores, bakeries, food storage warehouses, dairies and other food establishments once a year, it misses that target by a third.

Grocery stores, in particular, are being neglected. More than half have not had an inspection in the past year, and five percent haven’t had an inspection for more than three years.

Oregon doesn’t give retail food and food processors scores or letter grades. And, consumers who want a copy of their store’s last inspection must file a formal public records request and pay a minimum $15 search fee.

It’s a stark contrast to Oregon’s restaurant inspections, which are conducted by county health departments and overseen by the Oregon Health Authority. OHA reported 95 percent of restaurant inspections were completed on time, and it complies a yearly report with results. Most large counties also make restaurant inspection results easily available.

“There are two issues here – the inspections and the disclosures. Oregon is lacking in both,” said food safety expert Doug Powell, creator of “What you’re talking about is things that make people sick.”

Powell, a former Kansas State University food safety professor who has published a number of peer-reviewed papers on the subject, said restaurants are the focus of the public attention because it’s easier to pinpoint outbreaks when everyone reporting illness has eaten the same meal.

“It’s a farm-to-fork problem,” he said. “There are vulnerabilities all along the system. Everyone has a responsibility all along the system to provide safe food. (Oregon regulators) should have a responsibility to make that data publicly available.”

The newspaper has reached out to legislative leaders on the issue.

In an email response Sunday, Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli didn’t address funding or transparency., he said, “Any system so complex and with so many players inevitably fails on occasion. That’s where the educated consumer comes in. The person in the family who prepares and serves meals is ultimately responsible for making sure that all foods, even pre-packaged foods are washed before storing, kept under proper refrigeration, cooked hot enough to kill.

Such terrible advice. But he’s a politician, not a food safety type.

Filion, K. and Powell, D.A. 2009.

The use of restaurant inspection disclosure systems as a means of communicating food safety information.

Journal of Foodservice 20: 287-297.

The World Health Organization estimates that up to 30% of individuals in developed countries become ill from food or water each year. Up to 70% of these illnesses are estimated to be linked to food prepared at foodservice establishments. Consumer confidence in the safety of food prepared in restaurants is fragile, varying significantly from year to year, with many consumers attributing foodborne illness to foodservice. One of the key drivers of restaurant choice is consumer perception of the hygiene of a restaurant. Restaurant hygiene information is something consumers desire, and when available, may use to make dining decisions.

Filion, K. and Powell, D.A. 2011. Designing a national restaurant inspection disclosure system for New Zealand. Journal of Food Protection 74(11): 1869-1874

The World Health Organization estimates that up to 30% of individuals in developed countries become ill from contaminated food or water each year, and up to 70% of these illnesses are estimated to be linked to food service facilities. The aim of restaurant inspections is to reduce foodborne outbreaks and enhance consumer confidence in food service. Inspection disclosure systems have been developed as tools for consumers and incentives for food service operators. Disclosure systems are common in developed countries but are inconsistently used, possibly because previous research has not determined the best format for disclosing inspection results. This study was conducted to develop a consistent, compelling, and trusted inspection disclosure system for New Zealand. Existing international and national disclosure systems were evaluated. Two cards, a letter grade (A, B, C, or F) and a gauge (speedometer style), were designed to represent a restaurant’s inspection result and were provided to 371 premises in six districts for 3 months. Operators (n = 269) and consumers (n = 991) were interviewed to determine which card design best communicated inspection results. Less than half of the consumers noticed cards before entering the premises; these data indicated that the letter attracted more initial attention (78%) than the gauge (45%). Fifty-eight percent (38) of the operators with the gauge preferred the letter; and 79% (47) of the operators with letter preferred the letter. Eighty-eight percent (133) of the consumers in gauge districts preferred the letter, and 72% (161) of those in letter districts preferring the letter. Based on these data, the letter method was recommended for a national disclosure system for New Zealand.