Posting restaurant inspection grades creates a dialogue

Estimates suggest up to 70% of foodborne illnesses are acquired outside of the home. Every week there is at least one restaurant-related outbreak reported in the news media somewhere. Cross-contamination; lack of handwashing; and, improper cooking or holding temperatures are all common themes. These are the same things Peel Region (that’s in Canada) inspectors are looking for, according to the Mississauga News.barf-o-meter_-dec_-12-216x300

There are 50 health inspectors assigned to monitor conditions in the almost 5,700 food establishments operating in Peel Region.

Depending on what public health staff uncovers, those establishments are issued either green pass signs, yellow conditional passes or red closure orders.

Operators are required to post those colour-coded inspection notices at entrances to their businesses for the public to see.

According to Peel director environmental health Paul Callanan, the person in charge of the region’s health inspector corps, the vast majority of establishments in Peel pass regular inspection and are issued green signs.

“There’s about six per cent of food places that are considered that have a conditional pass or closed sign at any point and time,” he estimated.

In 2015, the region issued 9,656 pass signs, 319 conditional passes and closed 16 premises due to unhealthy conditions, while laying 189 food safety charges under public health protection legislation.

The public is free to view the most recent inspection results for food service establishments in Peel on a website portal maintained by the health department.

Surveying that database, it’s clear most restaurants have Peel Public Health’s approval to conduct business.

The health department’s disclosure website gives the public a window into restaurant kitchens, Callanan suggested.

It empowers the public by allowing them to make more informed choices about the establishments they wish to patronize, he said.

“You can log onto whatever your favourite restaurant is and look at the inspection history and if it varies between a green sign and yellow sign, I would wonder about that kind of establishment,” Callanan said.

I’m a fan of posting grades, regardless of the type of food business. While grades represent a snapshot, and don’t correlate well with outbreaks, they create dialogue and can lead to greater public discussion. There are limitations to a grade system because an inspection only reflects conditions at one point in time; the information collected by environmental health folks, no matter how limited, needs to accessible and clear so the public can make informed decisions.

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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.