Filion graduates, more contributions to food safety culture

In just three short years, Katie Filion has transformed herself from infosheet model (right) into an unemployed graduate with a Master’s degree (exactly as shown, this morning, left).

That’s right. Filion successfully defended her MS thesis, Designing A National Restaurant Inspection Disclosure System For New Zealand, and, will be a graduate of biomedical sciences in the veterinary college at Kansas State University. As soon as we turn in the paperwork.

K-State also highlighted the work of my lab through this morning where I said,

“Awareness is the best asset for enhancing the food safety culture. The best approaches come through incentives and the punishment of bad behavior. A prominent example is restaurant disclosure. This is based on giving letter grades for inspections. The greatest benefit is that it establishes a dialogue, but the information has to be posted.

"Publishing the information in the newspaper every couple of weeks doesn’t help when you’re walking through the restaurant’s door. It needs to be right there."

Powell said he’s encouraged by the level of dialogue on improving food safety, but acknowledges there’s plenty of work to do.

"For every step forward there always seems to be a few steps back. When you look at the billions of meals served in the country each year, food safety is pretty good. But when someone screws up, it’s pretty bad."

Powell said he is respectful of food when he cooks. But he cautions against being too paranoid.

"I think of any raw food as containing microorganisms that could be dangerous. I don’t treat it like nuclear waste, but I treat it with respect."

And way to go, Katie. Respect.

Will restaurant grades in New York mean fewer people barfing?

With any restaurant inspection disclosure system, one of the overriding objectives is a measurable reduction in foodborne illnesses. The question is: does putting an A on the front of a restaurant mean fewer people barf?

WNYC reports this morning that a 2003 study by two economists found that after letter grades were introduced in Los Angeles, there was a 20 per cent decline in hospital admissions for foodborne illness.

In the world of public health, that was a dramatic result. Yet this study is the only academic work to date that shows a connection between restaurant letter grades and rates of foodborne illness.

There’s a reason there’s only been one such paper: causation is not the same as correlation.

Katie Filion (left, pretty much as shown) gave a departmental seminar this morning – we’re both in diagnostic medicine and pathobiology in the veterinary college at Kansas State University — critiquing the paper and presenting some results from her year in New Zealand developing a national restaurant inspection disclosure system.

Filion said there was no accounting for different sources of, say, salmonella (pets cause it too), no accounting for whether food was contaminated at home, in the field or in a restaurant, and no accounting for statistical validity. There may have been a reduction of hospital admissions once inspection scores were posted, but that could have been due to increased awareness, a correlation of interest, but not causation.

A philosophy of transparency and openness underlies the efforts of many local health units across North America in seeking to make available the results of restaurant inspections. Such public displays of information may help bolster overall awareness of food safety amongst staff and the public — people routinely talk about this stuff. It’s all about that food safety culture.

The New Zealand stuff? Katie can talk about that after she defends her thesis.

K-State graduate student helping New Zealand with development of national restaurant inspection disclosure system — review paper published

This international research stuff can be challenging to co-ordinate. Not the supervision or the actual research, more getting all the various agencies, living arrangements and insurance lined up.

And I have to be more sensitive – I wanted to call this blog post, The shocking, untold, no-holds barred story of how Katie Filion went from Sault St. Marie, to Guelph, to Manhattan (Kansas) to New Zealand.

The Kansas State University press release that went out this morning said:

Katie Filion, a master’s student in biomedical science, has a thesis project with global implications. She is investigating New Zealand’s options for a national food business or restaurant hygiene grading system. She is working on the yearlong project with a $20,000 grant from the New Zealand Food Safety Authority.

Filion is doing her research in New Zealand and will return to K-State in May 2010 to complete her thesis with adviser Doug Powell, K-State associate professor of food safety.

New Zealand’s piecemeal use of grading systems means that it’s difficult for diners to check out an establishment’s food safety record. Filion said a consistent grading system throughout New Zealand will make consumers less confused and will bolster confidence in the country’s inspection systems. And with a population of about 4 million, New Zealand is an ideally sized country for such a project, Filion said.

"No one has determined the most effective way to present inspection results to the public but a good system has several characteristics," Filion said. "It should have clear guidelines about what earns a good or bad grade and should communicate to diners the risk of eating at a particular restaurant."

Here’s some more of the tale:

Katie left the Soo to do undergraduate research in food science at the University of Guelph. There, for reasons I’ve never fully understood, she and another friend started working for Chapman while he was finishing his PhD.

We met a couple of times, talked a couple of times, but Chapman said she was good and interested in restaurant inspection disclosure stuff – and graduate school – so I gave her some additional work. Then she graduated she spent eight months visiting farmers in Ontario as part of an on-farm food safety program.

Katie decided graduate school was next and I said, come to K-State. Meanwhile, while Amy and I were in New Zealand last summer (Kansas summer, not NZ summer) I worked out a possible arrangement – that Ben had initiated — for a grad student to work with NZFSA on restaurant inspection disclosure procedures.

She was supposed to go in Jan. 2009, but too many details needed to be filled in. Rather than facing winter in the Soo, Katie ventured to Kansas, and helped out around here for five months. She started contributing to barfblog and her writing got better.

In May, it was off to Wellington, NZ, and she seems to be doing great; even got a review paper published, which just came out.

The ways restaurant inspection disclosure systems reach consumers with food safety information was the topic of a review article that Filion and Powell published recently in the Journal of Foodservice. Because diners choose restaurants in part for their perception of the establishment’s hygiene, Filion and Powell suggest that restaurants would be wise to market themselves to potential customers in terms of their food safety inspection records.

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.

Norovirus outbreak at hospital in New Zealand

Although Katie Filion (fellow BarfBlogger) lives in Wellington, New Zealand, I trust she washes her hands properly and often, so I’m not too worried about her and the latest report of norovirus outbreak in Palmerston North, New Zealand.

Palmerston North Hospital has reported a possible norovirus outbreak. Patients and staff, 13 and 11, respectively, have been affected with this stomach bug. Earlier this year, 240 staff members and 88 patients were affected causing 31 major surgeries to be postponed.

To reduce the spread of infection, handwashing is being promoted to staff, patients, and visitors. Additional handwashing stations have been set up at the front hospital entrance, outside the entrance of each ward, and other places around the hospital. Visitor hours have been reduced to only 6 hours in the afternoon and patient property must be dropped off and collected at each ward entrance.

Dirty dining in Manhattan (Kansas)

Katie Filion and Brandon Speight, students in my food safety reporting class, write,

There is nothing appetizing about dead rodents, crusty slicers or sewage in a restaurant kitchen, but these are problems the Riley County Department of Health and Environment, in Manhattan, Kansas, has encountered during recent restaurant inspections. So how does a consumer, unable to witness what goes on behind the kitchen door, make an informed dining decision?

Perhaps unknown to some, restaurant inspection information is publicly available online in Kansas. After reviewing this data a few eateries appear to be dirtier than others, but what constitutes a bad inspection? 

Kathy Brower, an inspector for Riley County, answered some questions about the inspection process, and didn’t skip the dirty details.

Brower explained that foodservice establishments in Kansas are required to be inspected at least once a year. If a consumer contacts the health department with a complaint the establishment must be inspected within 24 hours. On the department website, consumers can see when an establishment has been inspected, and whether it was a routine inspection, customer complaint, or follow-up to address previous issues.

Brower additionally explained that during the inspection process the health inspector is looking for several things, some of which are categorized as non-critical violations and others as critical violations, and are based on likelihood to cause illness.

 “Examples of non-critical violations are things like mildew issues, thawing messes or dust,” said Brower. “Critical violations are more based on health risk, like hot or cold holding temperatures, ensuring clean food contact surfaces, pest control, and proper food handling.“

Critical violations — the problems that have a higher risk of making someone sick– are enforced on a three-strike rule.

“[An establishment] is given a violation, and has two chances to correct this violation before they are assigned a fine. Fines range in severity, and are based on the type of violation. They can be between $100-500 per violation,” explained Brower.

What’s the grossest thing Brower’s ever seen during an inspection?

 “Raw sewage backed-up in a kitchen, a wall-mounted veggie slicer that hadn’t been cleaned in over a year, and mice. There are so many different things it’s hard to say…There’ve been several instances of mold and mildew in bad places.”

So which restaurants in Manhattan are the dirtiest? Brower wouldn’t say, but after reviewing the inspection results online, a few appear to have more problems than others.  To be considered a dirty diner an establishment had to have several violations, with a high number of critical violations, repeat violations or customer complaints being a red flag.

With inspection results for over 250 foodservice establishments in Riley County listed on the department website, it is difficult to pinpoint only three that fared the worst. The website includes results for all foodservice operations, including schools and hotels, not considered in the search for Manhattan’s dirtiest diner.

In the end, the three restaurants in Manhattan that appear dirtiest are: Grizzly’s Grill, Bobby T’s and Hunam Express.

When asked if inspection is a good thing, Anthony Parker, owner of Grizzly’s Grill, who landed on the list because of last year’s inspection with a whopping 11 critical violations and repeat pest problems, said, “Yes and no. Every time there’s a new health inspector things change. I could be doing something one way for 5 years, and a new inspector decides they don’t like that. Then I get written up.”

Parker explained he feels the inspection process may not be fully understood by consumers.

“The biggest thing is when people read about violations and they aren’t educated about what [a violation] means they can sound worse than what they are. Based on the inspection criteria you could go into any consumer’s household and shut them down.”

When asked about the critical violations found during last year’s inspection, Parker added, “[Critical violations] are corrected on site. A lot of the repeat [violations] come from turn over of staff… I could tell them until I’m blue in the face, but until inspection they don’t realize it’s the law they need to follow, and I say things for a reason.”

Should inspection results be available to the public? Parker feels there are some holes in the disclosure system,

“It depends on how bad you did. The last [inspection], I wish it would disappear… but I would prefer more of an explanation for consumers. For example, temperature violations are usually a degree or two off, but that doesn’t appear on the website.”

Overall Parker says the poor inspection ranking on the website has negatively affected business.

Bobby T’s landed on the dirty dining list for last year’s July inspection with 8 critical violations, and several inspections throughout the year. Though Greg Bollenbach, co-owner of Bobby T’s, didn’t wish to comment on any of the previous inspections, he did say the inspection process is both necessary and beneficial.

“You’ve got to do it. What [inspection] does is heightens your awareness. If they come in and find a problem with the hold temperatures of one food item it alerts you, and makes you check all your stuff. Overall it improves product safety and quality. And in the end, it’s a learning process for everyone,” explained Bollenbach.

The third restaurant on this dirty dining list, Hunam Express, was inspected seven times last year, four of which in response to customer complaints. Numerous critical violations were observed during nearly all of these inspections, including issues with employee handwashing. No one at the establishment was available for contact.

Though health inspector Brower didn’t give an opinion on the dirtiest diner in Manhattan, she did indicate that corporate establishments usually fair better than privately owned operations. Is this always the case? No, but this time around a corporately owned foodservice establishment didn’t land amoung the dirtiest diners in Manhattan. Why?

Kirk Keling, general manager of Applebee’s in Manhattan, who has had it’s fair share of violations in the past, explained that the health department isn’t the only one to inspect Applebee’s.
“We’re inspected quarterly by operations, semi-annually by Applebee’s, and then at least once a year by the health department,” explained Keling.

But would more inspections result in fewer violations? Unlikely. Is the information on the health department website enough for consumers to make a decision based on? Maybe, but as Brower explained, it is important to recognize that inspection is only a snapshot in time, and an establishment with one violation may not necessarily be safer than an establishment with five.

Regardless of where consumers chose to eat, having the information available online provides choice – those who wish to learn more about their local diner can check the website, and those who could care less, won’t.

Katie Filion and Brandon Speight were students in a food safety reporting class this past semester at Kansas State University

Restaurant inspection reports are available at:;pcnty=;pcity=Manhattan;)

Show me the grade: Restaurant food safety ratings and consumer confidence

Katie Filion will be giving a departmental seminar this afternoon about restaurant inspection disclosure systems, research needs, and how to make them better. Katie’s been accepted into graduate school at Kansas State beginning in May 2009, and is working in my lab until then.

For those in Manhattan (Kansas), Katie’s talk is at 3:30 p.m. in the Practice Management Center, 4th Floor, Trotter Hall, Kansas State University. The slides Katie will be using are available below. me the score – Feb 2009.ppt

KATIE FILION: Whistle while you work, and sing while you scrub

A few years ago while completing my undergraduate degree I designed a food safety presentation for grade 2 and 3 students at a local elementary school.  The demonstration used games and visual aids to evaluate the children’s knowledge of food safety in the home. The 2nd and 3rd graders knew more than I did when I was that young about food preparation and handwashing.

One of the elements of the presentation was demonstrating proper handwashing technique, and for how long to wash your hands. Like the article in the Southern Oregon Mail Tribune, I suggested scrubbing to the tune of Happy Birthday.

If you want to stay healthy this winter while everyone around you is coming down with colds and flu, sing the birthday song while you wash your hands, and don’t stop scrubbing until you’ve finished the last "happy birthday to you."

It’s not the song that’s important. It’s the time it takes to sing it, or hum it to yourself while you lather and scrub. You could even go for a second chorus, washing all the while.

That’s the advice of doctors, nurses and others who work around sick people all the time.
Turns out some children don’t sing Happy Birthday any more, so we sang Twinkle Twinkle Little Star instead.

I walked past the washroom before lunch break when leaving the school and was pleased to hear little voices singing Twinkle Twinkle, and sounds of the tap running. A few weeks later teachers of the grades 2 and 3 classes informed me the lesson had started the children talking with their families about the importance of food safety in the home.

Katie Filion is a soon-to-be graduate student at Kansas State University who currently resides in Doug and Amy’s basement.

KATIE FILION: Sudbury should make scores public, eh? Batta-boom batta-bing.

Last month while visiting friends in Sudbury, Ontario, we ate at East Side Mario’s restaurant – I love the unlimited salad and breadsticks. Though I didn’t have any problems with my meal, a patron who ate lunch at the Lasalle boulevard restaurant Dec. 30 did, and voiced a complaint to the Sudbury District Health Unit, according to the Sudbury Star.

"The patron complained about employees coughing on food, improper employee hand washing and a lack of hot water. A visit by the health inspector the next day didn’t reveal any violations, but it was recommended the restaurant review food education and handling practices with its employees. After a follow-up inspection resulted in a charge for lack of sanitizer in the mechanical glass washer, vice-president of operations at East Side Mario’s decided to close the restaurant. Employees from East Side Mario’s head office were sent in to help the local site return to company standards.

Though charges for the Lasalle Boulevard restaurant were made public it’s not typical of health and safety infractions in the Sudbury district. Here people must phone and ask about any problems at a restaurant or food store and receive either a verbal or written report about inspection reports, closures and convictions, said Stacey Laforest, manager of the health unit’s environmental division.

There are better ways to communicate restaurant inspection results than simply disclosing information to curious consumers who call in. Many health units in North America are making results available via websites, like the Toronto, Ontario website DineSafe (; or mandatory posting of inspection score cards (in the form of letter, grade, color, or smiley-face schemes) near the entrance of premises. Increasing the availability and display of food safety information will raise overall awareness, and push food establishments to better themselves. The Greater Sudbury district could benefit from such disclosure methods. 

Katie Filion is a soon-to-be graduate student at Kansas State University who currently resides in Doug and Amy’s basement.