Baltimore proposes inspection disclosure

My little boy turned 2 yesterday and my family and I went all out to make this a memorable event. He’s into Paw Patrol (cartoon about dogs who rescue) and so the house was littered with Paw Patrol posters, napkins, plates, everything and dad’s wallet was depleted.
Worth it when I saw the look on his face.
I was in charge of picking up cake and food for the evenings’ BBQ from a local grocery store. In Manitoba (Canada) there is no on-site disclosure system to inform me how the place fared on their latest health inspection but I have done enough of them in my time to understand what to look for when I am shopping/dining and I ask questions, it’s the food safety in me. I observe behaviors; it gives me a more comprehensive picture of a food establishment’s culture. The City of Baltimore is proposing that restaurants post their latest inspection report to increase public transparency. Anything to better inform the public on food safety is better than nothing. I am curious to see if patrons will actually read the report and accurately assess the risk.

Baltimore Sun reports

At least once every year each of Baltimore City’s approximately 5,700 restaurants and eateries must pass a health department inspection in order to stay in business. Those checks are essential not only to ensure that minimum standards of cleanliness are observed in food preparation and service but also to prevent the spread of serious foodborne illnesses such as Norovirus and Salmonella. Yet until recently the public had virtually no way of knowing when a restaurant failed to pass muster or the reasons officials shut it down. Baltimore needs to make the process more transparent so that citizens can be more confident making up their own minds about where and what to eat.
A bill last year sponsored by City Councilman Brandon Scott would have required health department officials to assign a letter grade to restaurant inspection reports and display the results in a prominent place. Many other cities, including New York, have adopted similar grading systems over the initial objections of restaurateurs who argued consumers would confuse it for an endorsement of some restaurants over others. That appears not to have happened in the Big Apple, where the restaurant industry is still booming. Yet Mr. Scott’s initiative ultimately failed in the council, even though the debate did convince Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen to post restaurant inspection reports on her department’s website.
Now Mr. Scott is back this year with a new proposal that would require restaurants to post their latest health inspection reports in plain view outside their shops. Unlike his earlier effort, this one wouldn’t require inspectors to give restaurants a letter grade. We appreciate restaurants’ objection to such a system but also the value an easy-to-understand rating would have for diners. Though it may be unlikely that potential patrons would be as inclined (or equipped) to judge the contents of an entire inspection report as they would a simple letter grade, posting them would still represent a vast improvement in transparency. Diners could look up a restaurant’s inspection report on the Internet, but they’re much more likely to consider the issue of food safety if reports are posted in plain sight.
“We need to join the rest of the civilized world on this issue,” Mr. Scott says. “The city inspection reports are already on line, and there are only a handful of major cities that don’t require restaurants to show their health department reports on site. In Baltimore, for some reason, we’ve been slow to do that.”
The federal government estimates that about 1 in 6 Americans are sickened by a foodborne illness each year, which adds up to about 48 million cases nationally. Though the American food supply is considered one of the safest in the world, foodborne illness account for an estimated 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths every year. Young children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems are at greatest risk for contracting such diseases, but they can strike anyone of any age with deadly effect.
That’s why we urge the City Council to revisit Mr. Scott’s proposed legislation with the aim of helping consumers judge for themselves whether the food they are offered is safe to eat. Some restaurant owners object that posting inspection reports prominently on site could confuse diners who may not know how to interpret the results or who may become alarmed by a reported problem that appears to be more serious than it really is. But that’s a cause to educate the public, not to hide important information. If a report prompts consumers to ask questions about a particular food safety issue, it’s probably something the restaurant owner ought to be paying more attention to anyway.
Would any requirement that establishments post their inspection reports in a prominent place make customers less likely to patronize a particular restaurant or eatery? We doubt that any of the city’s top-tier dining places would see much, if any, change in consumer attitudes, not least because they’ve spent years developing reputations for excellence in all aspects of their business, including food safety and cleanliness. It’s the smaller, more informal neighborhood establishments that are most likely to feel the effects of a change in the law, but they’re also the most likely to be cited for health code violations. By encouraging them to strive for a clean bill of health every time Mr. Scott’s proposed legislation would give them more than enough incentive to offer fare that is not only tasty but safe to eat as well.
As for the criticism this proposal is bound to receive that restaurant inspections are a minor issue compared to Baltimore’s epidemic of violence, we would note that Brandon Scott is the last city official who could be accused of paying insufficient attention to the crime rate. On the contrary, no member of the council has been so consistently at the forefront of efforts to develop strategies for improving public safety and for ensuring accountability. He’s allowed to do more than one thing at a time. In fact, the taxpayers who pay his salary should expect it.

Posting restaurant grades as motivation in Jersey

All I know about Jersey I’ve learned from Don Schaffner, Michele Samarya-Timm, The Sopranos, Snooki and Jon Stewart. In that order. Following the lead of lots of other jurisdictions, the city of Vineland (that’s in Jersey) is about to post its restaurant inspection result summaries online – and depending what citizens want, may see entire inspection sheets (that’s how it’s done in most of North Carolina). According to the Daily Journal, now everyone can see how Vinnie’s Pizzeria did on their last visit from an Environmental Health Officer.

In response to public demand, the city’s health department is now posting restaurant inspection ratings online.
At least once a year, health department staffers conduct on-site inspections of the city’s more than 400 retail food establishments and review their food handling processes. Inspectors look at things such as the cleanliness of work surfaces, personal hygiene of workers and whether proper temperatures are used when heating, cooling and storing food, said Jeanne Garbarino, the city’s principal sanitary inspector.

These inspections result in a rating of satisfactory, conditional or unsatisfactory.
Each business is issued a certificate that by state law must be posted in a conspicuous place to alert patrons of the health rating.

Inspection reports are public documents, Garbarino said. The new online listing gives diners a central place to review all health ratings as well as the last date of an establishment’s inspection. The health department’s website is
This is just the first phase of giving the public more access to information, Garbarino said.
The next step, she said, is to assemble a focus group of about 15 people who will help determine what other information should be added to the health department’s website.

They will be asked, “What do you want us to show,” Garbarino said, noting one option is to post full inspection reports, which is already done in Virginia and Rhode Island.

A couple of restaurant operators who have nothing to hide, and seem to get promoting food safety culture, like the idea:

Saverio Brunetti of Dominick’s Pizza on South Lincoln Avenue welcomed it.

Safe food handling is a serious issue, Brunetti said, adding “You don’t want to give a customer a bad product.”
At Dominick’s Pizza, the health rating certificate is posted on the front wall among the establishment’s accolades so customers can see it.

“The satisfactory rating is not an achievement, it’s a standard we maintain,” Brunetti said.

The online rating information would not only be useful to him as a business manager, Brunetti said, he would use it as a diner.
And, Brunetti said, he might also be tempted to see how his competitors were faring.

“I don’t see a problem with it,” said Russell Swanson, owner of Bain’s Deli on Landis Avenue, noting customers can already see the satisfactory certificate at the deli.

Councilman Louis Cresci, the former director of the city’s health department, supported the online postings.

“The public part of this is supposed to be a motivational tool for these operators,” he said.

San Francisco: Consumers want food safety information in reviews and at the door

“If you’re going to San Francisco…” don’t expect to find restaurant inspection results easily. SF Gate Online acknowledges a reader’s frustration with restaurant reviews published in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The reader writes about a recent food critic review,

I am concerned about food safety. Often before I go to a restaurant I check its health department inspection results. The recent health department inspection reports for this [reviewed] restaurant indicated many unsafe food practices. I decided not to go to the restaurant after reading the inspection reports.

What due diligence does a restaurant reviewer perform before finalizing his or her review of a restaurant? I do not believe it’s in the best interest of the reader for a newspaper to write a review without including information as to whether it is safe to eat at that particular restaurant.

As intriguing are the comments following this story, with a few examples below:

whatnext         7/13/2009 6:06:39 AM
Correct me if I’m wrong, but, I seem to remember a time when the Chronicle actually posted the results of health inspections for restaurants. We should have a grading system like the one they have in L.A..

ringu    7/13/2009 6:18:41 AM
I agree I always liked the grading system that is used down south and wondered why we don’t use it here. Around here you have to ask the establishment owner for the inspection results since they aren’t posted for public viewing. I like seeing that grade when I go south it means alot for piece of mind and makes it easier to avoid places that are suspect.

signed_a_b     7/13/2009 7:18:03 AM
…The system we have in SF, where a yellow piece of paper (which may or may not be posted visibly) has health notes scribbled on it, is useless and absurd.

citizenkarma   7/13/2009 8:01:18 AM
Whatnext is right. I would add that health inspection information is much more valuable and actionable for cnsumers than the biased opinions of a food critic, usually recognized by owner and staff the minute they walk in, and who are treated royally accordingly. Think this does not influence the review? Think again.

Consumers in San Francisco, CA desire inspection information, and as the story and comments suggest, they want it easily accessible. The neighbouring cities of San Diego and Los Angeles have public disclosure systems in place — letter grades in the windows and reports online – why not San Francisco?

Salt Lake county launches inspection disclosure website

Diners in Salt Lake county Utah can now view restaurant inspection scores online, reports the Salt Lake Tribune.

In its first morning online, Utahns flocked the restaurant site. Around noon, just a few hours after its launch, the link had already received 68,000 hits…

Patti Rasmussen, co-owner of Sandy’s Tin Roof Grill, whose restaurant received a three-star rank during the latest inspection, said,

"I’m a big believer in letting people know. If you’ve got something to hide, you’re not going to like it. But if you are doing things correctly, you have nothing to fear."

Exactly. Those establishments confident in the safety of their food will not only embrace the website, but perhaps take it a step further and post the star rating at the premise.

The site allows consumers to search by restaurant name, address, city and through a new star rating system. The system ranks restaurants on a scale from one to four, based on how well each eatery fared compared to similar establishments. Restaurants that earn four stars are in the top 25 percent of their comparison group.

Red, yellow, green inspection disclosure for Columbus pools

Toronto’s DineSafe program of restaurant inspection disclosure adopted the red, yellow, green display signs, along with a website, back in 2001.

Some people don’t like the colors and say a restaurant should either be open or closed – red and green.

In a June 2002 report for the City of Toronto, I wrote,

There are a variety of ways to communication the results of a municipal foodservice or restaurant inspection program including numerical scores, letter grades, colour schemes and a listing of critical and non-critical violations. Summaries and/or detailed inspection reports can be posted on premises, Internet-based web sites or available upon request by fax or mail. There is general agreement that no single approach or communication vehicle is superior to others, that a variety of approaches and systems are used, and that on-going evaluation and research are required to determine overall effectiveness. However, the limitations in various approaches should not preclude continued efforts to enhance restaurant inspection and disclosure systems to meet the overall objectives of a reduction in foodborne illness and enhanced consumer confidence.

How consumers interpret posted inspection results and web sites, along with the most effective delivery mechanism, is yet to be determined. But health officials in Columbus, Ohio, are jumping right in.

Columbus Public Health started placing signs at pools this summer. Green means the pool passed, red means the pool is closed, and yellow or white mean the pool is working on its problems.

The majority of pool closures are because of water chemistry. Columbus Public Health has closed pools 72 times since June, most of them in apartment complexes and hotels. Depending on further tests, some remain closed for as little as a few hours. Others remain closed for weeks.

When they fail, the red sign goes up.

Tank in the Tavern

As a public service, the Manhattan Mercury in Manhattan, Kansas, home of iFSN at Kansas State University, publishes a weekly list of findings by the food service inspector at the local health department.

This week’s area food inspections report for the week ending August 12 includes results for Applebee’s, Tanks Tavern, and Sonic Drive In.

The paper emphasizes that the findings should be seen as a snapshot of conditions existing at the exact time of the inspection rather than as a reflection of the permanent conditions in an establishment.

The report for Tanks Tavern (712 N. Manhattan Ave), a new addition to the bar scene in Aggieville has to be my favourite. On August 2, in response to a complaint inspection, two critical violations were noted: 1. No handsink in bar area; 2. Found live dog in bar and dog food stored under sink. Four non-critical violations were also noted and a follow-up inspection was required.

Prior to the tavern’s opening at the end of January, tavern owner, Brett Allred told the Kansas State Collegian that the Tavern’s mascot, Tank, a pitbull mix, would be at the bar at all times — guess not.