Scores on doors better than on-line restaurant inspection reports

As the New York City Health Department invited public comment on proposed rules and outlined procedures to guide the implementation of New York City’s new restaurant grading system, Don Sapatkin of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported this morning that most food establishments don’t publicize even their most positive inspection reports, and no government in the Philadelphia region requires that they be tacked up for easy viewing like a menu.

But more are going online. With the new Camden County database that went live Thursday night, the outcome of inspections are now posted for the vast majority of restaurants in the eight-county region.

Ben Chapman, a food-safety specialist at North Carolina State University said,

"Cross-contamination and hand-washing violations and temperatures," thorough cooking, hot foods kept hot and cold foods kept cold – these are the most important risk factors for food-borne illness. Dirty bathrooms matter less.

Chapman, who reviewed the new Camden County Web site at The Inquirer’s request, was impressed that the posted reports include the temperatures of various foods found by the inspector – along with the inspector’s comments, which are necessary to make sense of the numbers.

Doug Powell, an associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University who operates barfBlog, which, despite its name, is a blog written mostly by academics, said that demand for on-line inspection disclosure is often high initially and then tapers off. Because of the hodgepodge of regulations and the complexity of the reports, Powell said, it is far more useful to place highly visible, simple letter or color grades at the restaurant location. A-B-C grades are used in Los Angeles and will begin in New York City in July.

Detailed inspection reports for restaurants and other food establishments are now posted in searchable databases for most of the region.

The language differs significantly from place to place, and can be hard to interpret. And food safety experts caution that inspections are merely a snapshot in time.