Oregon deserves regular, visible grocery inspections

Following up on the series of articles by Tracy Loew about grocery store inspection disclosure in Oregon, her paper, the Statesman Journal, comes out in favor of full disclosure.

image4Good for them.

In Oregon, it is difficult for consumers to learn whether the food at their favorite grocery store is handled safely.

That is the state’s fault.

And that is unconscionable.

The understaffed Oregon Department of Agriculture lags far behind the nationally recommended schedule for store inspections. Even worse, the public cannot easily learn what the inspectors found.

As the Statesman Journal’s Tracy Loew reported last week in stories that should raise legislators’ ire, the Agriculture Department has a huge backlog of grocery store inspections. Some stores have not been inspected for years, even though the federal government recommends inspections every six months.

State agriculture officials say that is because they prioritize inspections based on which activities in the food chain represent the greatest risk to public health and which facilities have a history of problems. That approach sounds defensible from a risk-analysis viewpoint, but it leaves widespread holes in the food-safety system.

The number of serious violations found in grocery store inspections can be astounding. Some — food being sold past the expiration date, food stored at the wrong temperature and food-handling equipment that is unclean — are enough to make the stomach turn.

The Agriculture Department inspection staff is stretched too thin. And some legislators say the situation is not unique to that department.

deli.counterThe 2015 Legislature should undertake a thorough review of inspections conducted by the state’s licensing and regulatory agencies, including:

•Do the inspections serve the purposes for which they were intended?

•Should the inspection process be streamlined? Intensified? Eliminated?

•How are inspections financed, and is staffing appropriate for the workload?

•Are inspection reports promptly posted online, where they are easily available for public view?

For grocery stores, another question desperately needs answering: Should county health departments be given the duty — and the state funding — to inspect grocery stores.

Counties already inspect restaurants. Grocery stores have added delis and other restaurant-style options to meet Americans’ changing lifestyles. For many people, a quick stop at the grocery store has replaced either eating at home or dining out.

In contrast to the backlog in grocery store inspections, about 95 percent of Oregon restaurant inspections are completed on time. The Oregon Health Authority is responsible for those restaurant, cafe and food-cart inspections but delegates that work to counties.

Because grocery stores operate on slim profit margins and face intense competition, it’s in their best interests to have the cleanest, healthiest food handling, display and storage. Some stores have increased their own inspections to compensate for the infrequency of state inspections. That is to their credit.

Still, inspections throughout the food chain are among government’s most important roles. A government inspection report, especially one that the public easily can see, adds clout to the importance of food safety.

It is baffling that the Agriculture Department this year created a database to track inspections and findings but planned the database only for internal management use instead of posting the results online. That suggests misplaced priorities and misunderstanding of the importance of transparency. In contrast, Marion County has an easy-to-use public database of restaurant inspections.

Gov. John Kitzhaber and legislators have a duty to bring Oregon from one of the least progressive states on food-to-table inspections to one of the best. This is an issue of public health, accountability and transparency.

Oregonians should not have to file a public records request and pay a fee for a copy of a grocery store’s inspection report.

Oregonians should not be left in the dark about their neighborhood grocery stores.

Oregonians should expect that their state government ensures their food safety — regularly and publicly.

Pennsylvania county wary of proposed letter grades for restaurants

While San Jose, Calif., embraces public information, Pittsburgh, Penn., appears stuck in a steel town past as six of the seven Allegheny County Council members who attended a public hearing asked questions that were critical of the proposed A-B-C letter-grade proposal, and none voiced support.

larry.david.rest.inspec“I just think it puts something up that’s causing a lot of angst without a lot of reason,” said Councilman Michael Finnerty, D-Scott, who chairs the Budget & Finance Committee on the 15-member council.

Dr. Lee Harrison, chair of the Board of Health, said the lack of support among the council members doesn’t spell defeat. A similar measure failed in 2011.

“We think from a public health standpoint that this is the right thing to do,” Harrison said.

Donna Scharding, the Health Department’s food safety program manager, said that in 2013, 56 percent of inspections found a high-risk violation, such as improper food handling or temperatures. In Los Angeles County and New York City, instances of foodborne illnesses decreased once grading systems started, Scharding told council members (tough to prove that one – dp).

How safe is a grocery store in Portlandia? It’s not easy to find out

In Cincinnati, Chicago or Washington, D.C., grocery store customers can go online to check out their favorite stores’ latest inspection report.

portlandia-we-can-pickle-thatAt least eight states and many counties and cities across the country post full copies of retail food inspections online. Many other states and municipalities offer online access to, at a minimum, an establishment’s last inspection date and score.

Tracy Loew of the Statesman Journal writes that in Oregon, customers are left in the dark.

Oregon adopted the FDA Food Code, which recommends inspection reports be public documents. But there is no requirement that they be publicly posted or made easily available.

Earlier this year, the Oregon Department of Agriculture created a new database to track food inspections and results. But the system was designed for internal use only, said Mark Stuller, an ODA information systems specialist.

Downloading the data, stored in a program called Filemaker Pro, would take a $30-an-hour analyst at least four hours, Stuller said, as would downloading any updates.

Oregon officials haven’t discussed putting the database online or otherwise making it accessible to consumers, said Frank Barcellos, an ODA food safety program manager.

To get a paper copy of an inspection report, customers must file a formal request under Oregon’s public records law and pay a minimum $15 search fee plus copying costs.

The system is in stark contrast to restaurant inspections, which are available online in Marion and the state’s other most-populous counties.

The Statesman Journal paid $109.50 for copies of inspection reports for the largest stores in Salem and Keizer.

In a follow-up story, leading food safety experts say Oregon officials have a responsibility to make grocery and food processing inspections publicly available.

“The more information you give them, the more consumers are able to make really good decisions to keep themselves safe,” said Bill Marler, a Seattle food-safety lawyer and founder of Food Safety News. “If a grocery store has a bad track record of safety, the public has a right to know that.”

Portlandia_veganOn Sunday, the Statesman Journal reported that while the Oregon Department of Agriculture aims to inspect grocery stores, bakeries, food storage warehouses, dairies and other food establishments once a year, it misses that target by a third.

Grocery stores, in particular, are being neglected. More than half have not had an inspection in the past year, and five percent haven’t had an inspection for more than three years.

Oregon doesn’t give retail food and food processors scores or letter grades. And, consumers who want a copy of their store’s last inspection must file a formal public records request and pay a minimum $15 search fee.

It’s a stark contrast to Oregon’s restaurant inspections, which are conducted by county health departments and overseen by the Oregon Health Authority. OHA reported 95 percent of restaurant inspections were completed on time, and it complies a yearly report with results. Most large counties also make restaurant inspection results easily available.

“There are two issues here – the inspections and the disclosures. Oregon is lacking in both,” said food safety expert Doug Powell, creator of barfblog.com. “What you’re talking about is things that make people sick.”

Powell, a former Kansas State University food safety professor who has published a number of peer-reviewed papers on the subject, said restaurants are the focus of the public attention because it’s easier to pinpoint outbreaks when everyone reporting illness has eaten the same meal.

“It’s a farm-to-fork problem,” he said. “There are vulnerabilities all along the system. Everyone has a responsibility all along the system to provide safe food. (Oregon regulators) should have a responsibility to make that data publicly available.”

The newspaper has reached out to legislative leaders on the issue.

In an email response Sunday, Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli didn’t address funding or transparency.

qr.code.rest.inspection.gradeBut, he said, “Any system so complex and with so many players inevitably fails on occasion. That’s where the educated consumer comes in. The person in the family who prepares and serves meals is ultimately responsible for making sure that all foods, even pre-packaged foods are washed before storing, kept under proper refrigeration, cooked hot enough to kill.

Such terrible advice. But he’s a politician, not a food safety type.

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.

Filion, K. and Powell, D.A. 2011. Designing a national restaurant inspection disclosure system for New Zealand. Journal of Food Protection 74(11): 1869-1874
.

The World Health Organization estimates that up to 30% of individuals in developed countries become ill from contaminated food or water each year, and up to 70% of these illnesses are estimated to be linked to food service facilities. The aim of restaurant inspections is to reduce foodborne outbreaks and enhance consumer confidence in food service. Inspection disclosure systems have been developed as tools for consumers and incentives for food service operators. Disclosure systems are common in developed countries but are inconsistently used, possibly because previous research has not determined the best format for disclosing inspection results. This study was conducted to develop a consistent, compelling, and trusted inspection disclosure system for New Zealand. Existing international and national disclosure systems were evaluated. Two cards, a letter grade (A, B, C, or F) and a gauge (speedometer style), were designed to represent a restaurant’s inspection result and were provided to 371 premises in six districts for 3 months. Operators (n = 269) and consumers (n = 991) were interviewed to determine which card design best communicated inspection results. Less than half of the consumers noticed cards before entering the premises; these data indicated that the letter attracted more initial attention (78%) than the gauge (45%). Fifty-eight percent (38) of the operators with the gauge preferred the letter; and 79% (47) of the operators with letter preferred the letter. Eighty-eight percent (133) of the consumers in gauge districts preferred the letter, and 72% (161) of those in letter districts preferring the letter. Based on these data, the letter method was recommended for a national disclosure system for New Zealand.

Making sausage with Baltimore city council

Maryland councilman Brandon M. Scott has been trying to get a food service inspection grade bill passed for two years now. He says a public ratings system, which many cities have, would improve transparency, keep residents better informed of health code violations, and keep restaurants on their toes.

qr.code.rest.inspection.gradeNew York City uses a letter grades system where restaurants post their grades in the restaurant windows.

Currently, Scott says, if a Baltimore restaurant or food facility has a bad health department inspection report, it is closed by the agency, but it doesn’t have to tell the public (or post a sign) why.

“The business could say they closed for repairs,” he says. “Consumers should know if a restaurant was closed for egregious violations.”

The Baltimore Health Department does post closure violations – online, but only once a month (which is all the law requires) and typically long after a facility has reopened.

Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young  and members Eric Costello, Bill Henry, Rochelle “Rikki” Spector, Carl Stokes and Scott attended the work session, which was chaired by Councilman Robert Curran.

Spector said she didn’t understand why Scott would compare Baltimore to larger American cities like Chicago and New York, which both post health department inspection ratings.

“Maryland jurisdictions are not doing this. Are we making things difficult for people who live and work in Baltimore City,” she asked, implying that the postings would be a burden on restaurants.

Curran, however, seemed to favor a public posting of inspection grades.

He said the health department’s monthly online posting only served computer users and the “technologically advanced.”

Canadian health unit putting inspection information online

If my friend Jim goes out for a celebratory meal, he’ll soon be able to check on a restaurant in Owen Sound (that’s in Ontario, Canada) to make sure it complies with health regulations.

green-pencilBeginning on Jan. 1, the Grey Bruce Health Unit will be including on its website a public disclosure system for food premises the health unit inspects. The system, called Check It, will allow members of the public to check the health regulation compliance of all food premises in Grey-Bruce, including restaurants, grocery stores, bakeries and chip wagons.

“It is very common practice in today’s world that people want to know where they are going, what the inspection results have been for a premises,” said Angela Newman, program manager, food safety, with the Grey Bruce Health Unit. “That is why this process was put in place from the province’s perspective a couple of years ago.”

Currently, if the public wants an inspection report of one of the approximately 1,600 food premises in Grey-Bruce, they would phone the health unit, which would then provide the information.

“What we are doing now is we are just going to make it a little bit more of a simple process for the general public to access that information, so it will be available on our website,” said Newman. “They will go to our Grey Bruce Health Unit website and there will be a link there and it will lead them to the food disclosure webpage.”

Newman said the program can be benefit to business owners.

“For folks that are doing a really great job, this is a way of saying, ‘Hey have a look. Have a look at my inspection reports. I am doing a great job and I am getting a good inspection report,’” said Newman. “It really helps those businesses get that kind of good publicity that they deserve.”

Newman said the program will also potentially motivate some businesses to clean up their acts.

Spend restaurant money at places proud of their inspection results: Indiana investigation highlights problems

State law requires counties inspect Indiana’s nearly 12,000 restaurants twice a year. But even when inspectors find mouse droppings, flies and raw meat stored at the wrong temperature, customers might have a hard time finding out about it, an I-Team 8 investigation found.

jake.gyllenhaal.rest.inspection.disclosureI-Team 8 took a hidden camera into Central Indiana restaurants asking for copies of inspection reports. In four counties, the majority of restaurants wouldn’t provide a report when I-Team 8 asked to see it. Six of eight restaurants refused. One restaurant said, “I don’t have them.”

Even when inspectors have found critical violations, state law mandates counties wait 10 days before making any of those results public.

I-Team 8 took the issue to Indiana State Sen. Vaneta Becker, who was part of the committee that wrote the 10-day rule 20 years ago as a then state representative. She said no one had ever challenged the 10-day rule since, despite most other states not having such a policy.

Some states post letter grades A-F right in the front window. Indiana doesn’t. I-Team 8 checked the policies of all 50 states and Washington, D.C.  Six states require restaurants turn over inspection reports to customers. Many more leave it up to the counties. In South Carolina, grades are posted as a decal in the restaurant immediately after the inspection. Some states like Mississippi you can check restaurant inspections as you walk in on a smartphone app.

Although Indiana doesn’t post grades, I-Team 8 found two restaurants in the metro area that readily handed over their inspections.

“Why make you go through all that work to dig that stuff up when we have it right here?”

The manager at Culver’s in Noblesville immediately said, “I can give you our most recent one, sir,” when I-Team 8 asked for an inspection report.

At Pizza King in Cumberland an employee said, “Yes! They’re supposed to be right here.”

It’s company policy at both Culvers and Pizza King.

“That’s why we have to keep them here,” the Pizza King employee said. “It has to be open to the public, so people can look at it.”

Culvers keeps a copy handy. In fact, the manager said his restaurant helped with Hamilton County Health Department’s online system.

“They post all the health inspections too because we helped them set up the program,” the manager said.

Culver’s owner Jeff Meyer said keeping the inspections on-site is about customer convenience.

“You can log on online and see for yourself, so why make you go through all that work to dig that stuff up when we have it right here?”

I still prefer name and shame: Name and Fame for Dubai restaurants

Customers will soon be able to view a food safety grade on the entrance of Dubai food outlets as part of an upcoming “Name and Fame” scheme, an official said on Sunday.

scarlet.letterThe scheme will reveal whether the outlet has passed, failed or obtained a conditional pass in official food safety inspections.

It will also assign what will probably be a letter grade indicating the level of compliance, with “A” being the highest and “E” the lowest.

The scheme was announced during the ninth Dubai International Food Safety Conference, which lasts until Tuesday.

“We want to let consumers know who’s doing well. It’ll invite people to make food safety their priority,” Sultan Al Tahir, head of inspections at Dubai Municipality’s food control department, said.

“The grade will be posted outside the place. We’ll implement this in the future.”

Al Tahir said more than 200 out of 13,000 food establishments in Dubai are of A-grade standing. Those falling in the E category are 430.

It is understood the grades will be revised if necessary after scheduled and spot food safety inspection results.

Also planned for consumers is a smart barcode system which will let smartphone users scan the product information on the packaging of all food products in the UAE, said Khalid Mohammad Sharif, the municipality department’s executive director.

qr.code.rest.inspection.gradeUsing an app in their smart device, customers will be able to scan a code that will reveal a catalogue of information, such as nutrition facts, expiry date, ingredients, and country of origin.

The code will also reveal if the product has ever been flagged by authorities.

“Consumers will know if it has had any previous history. It means more control and transparency, which is good for everybody. All of that will be on your smartphone,” Sharif added.

The system will also reveal if the product is registered with federal authorities, which will become mandatory some time in 2015, he said.

The Dubai Municipality plans to shut down food outlets that do not raise their food safety standards to the highest level before the emirate hosts the World Expo in 2020, a senior official revealed on Sunday.

“We want all food outlets in Dubai to be in ‘A’ and ‘B’ categories. We don’t want any restaurant or hotel below those grades by 2020,” Khalid Mohammed Sherif Al Awadhi said.

Speaking to Khaleej Times on the sidelines of the 9th Dubai International Food Safety Conference (DIFSC) on Sunday, Al Awadhi said it is high time that eateries raised their standards to make Dubai the best place to dine in.

Still prefer scores on doors: UK diners should ‘look before they book’

Festive diners are advised to ‘look before they book’ when planning a Christmas meal out in Bucks.

larry.david.rest.inspecThe Food Standards Agency said people should check a restaurant’s food hygiene rating, which is determined by local authority food safety officers.

Restaurants are marked from nought to a high of five.

Ninety-three per cent of food businesses in Bucks are rated three or better.

South Bucks District Council’s cabinet member for health and housing, Councillor Jennifer Woolveridge, said: “It’s easy to check hygiene ratings online and choose a restaurant for Christmas parties that takes food hygiene seriously. A good food hygiene rating is something to be proud of.

Visit www.food.gov.uk/ratings to check
a rating or look for the green and black sticker on the restaurant. If you cannot see one, just ask.

 

More demand for restaurant inspection info

From San Jose to South Australia, locals are adopting restaurant inspection disclosure or grading programs to inform diners of recent ratings.

scores_doors_featureBeginning in Jan. 2016, San Jose restaurants will adopt the Toronto-like green-yellow-red display system.

In the state of South Australia (that’s where Adelaide is) 10 local Councils have signed up to a voluntary Scores on Doors Pilot Program that will test a new Food Safety Rating scheme for cafes, restaurants and pubs.

Director of Food Safety and Nutrition at SA Health, Fay Jenkins said food safety rating schemes were used all over the world to help consumers make informed choices about where they decided to buy their food.

“Customers have a right to know that the food they buy has been stored in a clean, safe environment and prepared by people with the appropriate food handling skills,” Dr Jenkins said.

“South Australian businesses can start displaying a star rating, calculated using the results of their routine food safety inspection undertaken by local Councils throughout the pilot program,” she said.

“Encouraging businesses to display their star rating aims to improve standards in the food service industry and will also help to improve public health by reducing the risk of food poisoning.”

 

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.

Abstract

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.

 

Filion, K. and Powell, D.A. 2011. Designing a national restaurant inspection disclosure system for New Zealand. Journal of Food Protection 74(11): 1869-1874
.

The World Health Organization estimates that up to 30% of individuals in developed countries become ill from contaminated food or water each year, and up to 70% of these illnesses are estimated to be linked to food service facilities. The aim of restaurant inspections is to reduce foodborne outbreaks larry.the_.cable_.guy_.health.inspector-213x300and enhance consumer confidence in food service. Inspection disclosure systems have been developed as tools for consumers and incentives for food service operators. Disclosure systems are common in developed countries but are inconsistently used, possibly because previous research has not determined the best format for disclosing inspection results. This study was conducted to develop a consistent, compelling, and trusted inspection disclosure system for New Zealand. Existing international and national disclosure systems were evaluated. Two cards, a letter grade (A, B, C, or F) and a gauge (speedometer style), were designed to represent a restaurant’s inspection result and were provided to 371 premises in six districts for 3 months. Operators (n = 269) and consumers (n = 991) were interviewed to determine which card design best communicated inspection results. Less than half of the consumers noticed cards before entering the premises; these data indicated that the letter attracted more initial attention (78%) than the gauge (45%). Fifty-eight percent (38) of the operators with the gauge preferred the letter; and 79% (47) of the operators with letter preferred the letter. Eighty-eight percent (133) of the consumers in gauge districts preferred the letter, and 72% (161) of those in letter districts preferring the letter. Based on these data, the letter method was recommended for a national disclosure system for New Zealand.

‘More info better for consumers’ NC County restaurant inspection ratings to appear on Yelp pages

Restaurant inspections have long revealed the dirtier side of food locales, including the restaurants frequented by residents of Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

In an effort to make inspection ratings more accessible, Orange County announced Sept. 16 that it would begin posting its health inspection ratings to Yelp. A restaurant’s most recent letter grade now appears in the right-hand column of its Yelp page.

seinfeld.soupnaziVictoria Hudson, an environmental health specialist for the Orange County Health Department, conducts inspections in Carrboro and parts of Chapel Hill and UNC. She said more access to information is beneficial to consumers.

“People should be able to use these scores to assign risk,” Hudson said. “The letter ‘A’ does not necessarily give you the full picture as much as the list of comments does.”

Clicking on the inspection score on Yelp reveals more information on previous inspections, including the dates and the number of health code violations found.

In May, for example, an inspection found pink and black mold in the ice machine at R&R Grill, though mold in ice machines was not an uncommon violation at restaurants in 2013 findings. The restaurant lost 1.5 points — a half deduction — and received a 98.5 total score.

Ross Moll, the owner of R&R Grill, said employees cleaned the machine after it was discovered. The machine is cleaned weekly and inspected to prevent the problem.

“I think they do a good job coming down on people who are not up to snuff on things, and they definitely work with people to get things fixed,” Moll said about the Health Department.

Tony Sustaita, owner of Bandido’s, said the inspections help reinforce safe practices.

“Obviously the policy is to be clean all the time, but people mess up once in a while,” he said. “Any issue that is brought up in an inspection is addressed immediately.”

Both Moll and Sustaitia said displaying scores in restaurants and on Yelp helps consumers make decisions.

“I think the only ones who would be concerned would be the ones with negative scores,” Sustaita said. “We’ve had pretty good