About time: Pittsburgh unveils updated restaurant inspection stickers

The Allegheny County Health Department is making it easier for restaurant patrons to get a glimpse of what’s going on in the kitchen before deciding where to eat.

stickers0719-restaurant-inspected-bizOn Monday, the county unveiled new inspection stickers for restaurant doors that include QR codes — two-dimensional bar codes — so that people with smartphones can scan the codes and get instant access to a restaurant’s inspection reports. 

The decals — which include green stickers for “Inspected and Permitted” facilities; yellow “Consumer Alert” stickers for when conditions may pose a health risk; and red “Closed” stickers for facilities shut down for serious health code violations until fixes are made — also have been redesigned in an easier-to-read format.

“The updated placards will provide county residents with a clear and easy-to-read status of the facilities they’re considering when making dining choices, while also providing easy access to the reports,” health department director Karen Hacker said in a statement.

Restaurant inspection reports have been available for residents to view online using a search engine on the health department’s website since 2007. The QR codes will provide a direct link to the search page.


Los Angeles County inspection cards to include QR codes

When I meet a non-food safety nerd in a social setting (most of which occur around kids hockey) the conversation usually turns to foods I avoid and restaurant scores. I avoid a few things (sprouts, raw oysters, undercooked meats) and I caution of the false sense of security of a high inspection grade.qr-code-1

I share that I go online and check out the inspection history of our favorite spots. I look for risk factors and whether a place has the same problems/mistakes/violations time after time.

According to the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Los Angeles County Department of Public Health is takings steps to make things easier for patrons interested in looking at a restaurant’s inspection history when they walk in the restaurant.

A new A, B, C grade card that would allow the public to access food facilities’ inspection history with their smartphones may soon appear in the windows of Los Angeles County restaurants.

Los Angeles County Department of Public Health officials are recommending the county revise the grade cards to include a QR code, the dates of restaurants’ last three or four inspections and the inspector’s initials, according to a report submitted to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Monday.

The QR code, a tool that health departments in Pasadena and San Diego County use on their grade cards, would take smartphone users to the county’s online inspection database, which provides the health code violations observed during routine inspections.

“Between posting the grade card, having a QR code, having information on Yelp and having it on our website, we feel like we’ve touched all the bases for letting people know what the facility has the scored,” said Terri Williams, acting director of the county Department of Public Health’s environmental health division, which is responsible for inspecting more than 39,000 retail food facilities in the county between one and three times a year.

“You can demand to look at a paper copy, so this just makes it a little bit more accessible,” said Matt Sutton, vice president of government affairs and public policy for the California Restaurant Association.

Surveys still suck: Public wants more information about conditions at LA County restaurants

Surveys are built-in news generators but can often mean little.

Of course people want more information, want more food labels, and always wash their hands properly when they go #2.

survey.saysThe San Gabriel Valley Tribune reports the public wants to know more about the conditions in Los Angeles County restaurants.

Between Oct. 1 and Dec. 3, 419 people responded to the five-question survey asking whether more information should be provided on health grade placards posted in restaurant and market windows, according to a Dec. 23 report submitted to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. The survey, which was made available online and in-person at district office, is part of an effort to improve the county’s restaurant grading system.

Among the survey findings:

  • More than 85 percent of respondents consider restaurant grades (A, B, C) before eating out
  • 93 percent said they look for the current letter grade when they arrive at a restaurant, 34 percent look at Yelp reviews and approximately 14 percent look at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health website
  • More than 70 percent of respondents said it would be helpful for the inspection score (ie. 92, 85, 78) to be posted along with the A, B or C grade, as well as the health code violations observed during the latest inspection
  • Roughly 75 percent said they would like to see the date of the inspection
  • Around half of respondents said they would access information about restaurant inspection reports with their smartphones if a QR code was made available on the grade card.

The results of the survey were included in the fourth monthly progress report on a series of recommendations proposed by the health department in August.

Prompted by a Los Angeles News Group review of almost two years of inspection data, the recommendations outline a series of current problems and potential fixes to the 17-year-old grading system, which allows many restaurants and markets to operate with major health threats and gives those facilities high health grades, according to the data.

QR codes can help: Market food safety success and failure or faith the wrath of conspiracy theorists

What is the most effective way to provide information about how food was grown and prepared?

good, bad, uglyI’ve been touting the same approach to food safety information for over 20 years: figure out the best and most meaningful way to provide open access; embrace new technology, and no one wants to be the politician who tells constituents, no, you don’t deserve to know.

Restaurant inspection results should be disclosed as local communities are discovering around the world; but what’s the best way? We do research on that.

People say they want to know if something is genetically modified; I prefer genetic engineering, because all food is genetically modified in some manner, and sold sweet corn as GE 16 years ago.

No biggie.

Technology seems to have caught up with my democratic dreams and food information is about to flood the mainstream.

The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) has agreed with the food industry to publish the results of industry testing of meat products, to provide a clearer picture of standards in the food chain. The results will also be made publicly available.

qr.code.rest.inspection.gradeUK Nestle is preparing to give people instant access to information about the nutritional profile and environmental and social impacts of its products. Anyone who buys a multi-pack of two-finger Kit Kat chocolate bars in the U.K. and Ireland will be able to find out more about what they are made of, how they fit into a balanced diet and lifestyle, and how they were produced, just by scanning the packaging with a smartphone.

And Food Quality News reports that bakery manufacturers who want to differentiate themselves in a competitive market should consider communicating safety and quality efforts to consumers.

We do research on that too.

But Hershey’s Kisses?

Why not.

Dan Charles of NPR asks, can big food win friends by revealing its secrets?

The special holiday version of Hershey’s Kisses, now on sale nationwide, is an icon of the food industry’s past, and perhaps also a harbinger of its future.

Back when Milton Hershey started making this product, more than a century ago, it was a simpler time. He ran the factory and the sales campaigns — although, for decades, he refused to advertise.

Today, The Hershey Company is a giant enterprise with factories around the globe. It owns food companies in China, Brazil and India.

That’s typical for the food industry, of course. Lots of food companies are huge. And with vastly increased scale comes growing skepticism about what those companies are up to.

hershey.qr.kisses.dec.15Amanda Hitt may be an extreme case. She’s director of the Food Integrity Campaign for an activist organization called the Government Accountability Project, which tries to expose the food industry’s darkest secrets: dangerous slaughterhouses, contaminated meat and exploited workers. “This industry is almost always wrong, and always doing something messed up,” she says. “So yeah, when I look at anything they do, there’s a certain level of skepticism.”

Charlie Arnot, who has studied consumer attitudes as a consultant to big food companies, says consumers have lots of questions: How is this food made? Is it good for me? And they tend not to trust answers from big companies.

“There is a significant bias against Big Food,” says Arnot, who is also CEO of the nonprofit Center for Food Integrity in Kansas City. “In fact, the larger the company, the more likely it is that people will believe that it will put profit ahead of the public interest.”

Companies can’t change that with marketing campaigns, he says. The one thing that they can do — and the only thing that works, according to Arnot’s research — is open up, and reveal details of their operations.

Which brings us back to those Hershey’s Kisses.

Deb Arcoleo, who carries the freshly minted title of director of Product Transparency for The Hershey Company, has brought a bag of them along to our meeting, because there’s something new on that package. Printed on the bag, so small that you’d easily miss it, is a little square QR code. These are the codes that you now see in lots of places, like airline boarding passes.

Arcoleo takes my smartphone, aims it at the code, and I hear a beep. Suddenly, the screen of my phone is filled with information about these Hershey’s Kisses: nutrition facts, allergens in this product and details about all the ingredients. Lecithin, for instance.

“Let’s say I don’t really know what lecithin is,” says Arcoleo. “I can click on ‘lecithin,’ and I will get a definition.”

Tap another tab, and we see a note about whether this product contains ingredients from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

Hershey’s created this system, called SmartLabel, but other companies are now adopting it, too. Very soon, Arcoleo says, there will be tens of thousands of products on supermarket shelves with SmartLabel codes.

Charlie Arnot, the food industry consultant, thinks that some companies may, in fact, be willing to do this. Consumers are forcing them to do it.

“Consumers are interested in the good, the bad and the ugly,” he says. They are saying, “Give me the information, treat me like an adult, and allow me to make an informed choice.”

Arnot is telling big food companies that “transparency builds trust,” and advising them to post on their websites documents that may contain bad news, such as outside audits of their food safety procedures.

But outside audits and inspections can suck; more of a corporate gladhanding to move product out the door.

There are good companies and there are bad companies: Hard to tell the difference when the same soundbites are manufactured in a factory somewhere that has probably been outsourced.

The best farmers, processors, retailers and restaurants should brag about their superior food safety and whatever technology they use to make safe, wholesome food.

Brag about it; embrace it, make it your own.

Knowing where food comes from doesn’t mean safe: ‘data is currency of digital economy real-time data is king’

For over 15 years I’ve been experimenting with ways to provide parents like me with information they actually want in the food they buy. And I’ve always advocated layered information, and more information as the technology catches up.

According to a story in Phys.org, some consumers already demand to know where their food comes from and how it’s handled on the qr.code.rest.inspection.gradepath to their plate, but growing pressures on world food production – and therefore food safety – will make those questions of increasing importance to everyone.

But safety requires data, not feel-good sentiment.

Pathways to Market is a multimillion-dollar research collaboration designed to  deliver a smorgasbord of digital information to producers, distributors and consumers here and in Asia.

The project – described by University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) Distinguished Research Professor Jordan Louviere as “an ambitious combination of cutting-edge science and marketing research” – could one day have consumers swiping their smartphones over packaging to discover where a food came from, who processed it and the conditions under which it was transported and stored.

In turn, real-time data collected from consumers will drive innovation by producers and processors and help distributors keep food safe and fresh.

Ros Harvey of Sense-T says: “Accurate data is the currency of the digital economy, and real-time data is the king of data.”