Journalism works: Philly restaurants get same-day health inspections

Philadelphia this week joined other major American cities in publicly releasing same-day restaurant inspection reports rather than waiting a month, a policy critics said kept diners in the dark about potential health risks.

rocky.phillyFor the last three decades, diners in Philadelphia have unknowingly patronized restaurants cited for serious hygiene problems including mouse droppings, improperly refrigerated food and managers oblivious of the basic tenets of food safety.

Health department officials said the city’s longstanding 30-day secrecy policy was meant to give eatery owners time to challenge inspection results. Yet it was a practice that surprised health officials in other big cities.

The same-day release of inspection results follows an Inquirer/ report that found Philadelphia was the only major city in the United States to withhold results for a significant length of time. The results are available from the city, or more conveniently, on the Clean Plates website:

This week, health department sanitarians dropped in on dozens of eateries throughout the city. Among the most sharply criticized were a Drexel University dining hall, two South Philly watering holes and an upscale burger joint in Center City.

Going public: Restaurant inspection disclosure makes Birmingham politician ‘sad’

Birmingham’s food safety chief has attacked the Birmingham Mail for highlighting takeaways which could be at risk of giving customers food poisoning.

barbara.dring.birminghamChairman of the council’s licensing and public protection committee Barbara Dring told colleagues she was ‘saddened’ that the list of 127 takeaways and restaurants with zero-ratings for food hygiene on October 28, 2015 was published by the Birmingham Mail.

The food hygiene ratings are given by council inspectors so that customers are aware which kitchens are clean and well run and which have been found to be dirty, selling out of date food, have cockroaches or rats or other problems.

The council then publishes the results online via the Food Standards Agency website after an undetermined period for any appeals to be lodged.

The principle is that bad takeaways and restaurants are named and shamed.

But Coun Dring (Oscott) said: “I find it sad that the newspaper wants to knock Birmingham in this fashion.

She said that a prosecution followed and the club was fined £1,200 and made to pay £800 costs.

Conservative councillor Gary Sambrook (Kingstanding) said: “Birmingham residents deserve to know what the outcome of food hygiene inspections are.

“It’s shocking to think that the city council wants to try and muzzle the press, so that residents aren’t clear on the hygiene ratings of their local takeaway.

Here’s Bobby: Color code grades for restaurants in Dubai next year

By early next year, Dubai Municipality will roll out its color coding system to grade the level of hygiene and food safety in food outlets, a municipality official told Gulf News.

bobby.bittman.sctv.eugeneThe new grading system will affect 14,000 food establishments in Dubai, including restaurants, cafeterias, catering companies and food manufacturers. “By the beginning of 2016, as early as January, all food establishments will have their inspection ratings on display for customers to see. This system will, in turn, increase transparency and ensure the quality of eateries,” Bobby Krishna (right, not exactly as shown), principal food inspection officer at Dubai Municipality, told Gulf News.

This is the first time such a colour coded scheme will be implemented in the country, and the initiative will complement the role of the municipality’s 70 inspectors who are responsible for monitoring hygiene standards at food outlets.

Sultan Ali Al Taher, head of the Food Inspection Section, said the coding of food outlets will be Dubai’s new system to improve food safety standards. The colour card will be divided into five different categories — green, light green, yellow, red and white — each with its own points to grade the standard of each food establishment.

Dubai Municipality’s ratings will award a green card to eateries that score 95 and above, while a light green card will indicate a satisfactory rating that records less than five minor violations — equivalent to a rating from 90 to 94. A yellow card indicating a conditional pass will be issued when there is either one major violation or a maximum of seven minor violations, which will be scored from 75 to 89.

powell_krishna_feb_12“With this one colour-grading code, we can increase the efficiency of restaurants and also reduce non-compliance issues, as it is normal for any food regulatory system to face instances where food outlets do not comply with safety standards,” Krishna said (left, me in Dubai 2012).

Currently, approximately 200 outlets have been awarded the A-grade green cards, which reflect their high rating with no records of violations during routine municipal inspections.

He explained that countries around the world have already adopted a similar approach where it has been made mandatory for food outlets to display their grade as awarded by regulatory authorities. “We have copied the best global practices and adapted them,” said Krishna.

Toronto uses a red-yellow-green system.

A-B-C disclosure system for Boston

Boston, you’re a big city with a strange accent, why haven’t you figured out restaurant inspection disclosure until now?

restaurant_food_crap_garbage_10Regardless, Boston plans to soon start assigning letter grades to publicly rate the cleanliness and food safety practices for all restaurants and other food-service vendors in the city, giving diners a visible new tool to confidently choose where to eat.

Officials hope to launch a pilot version of the grading system in early January. For the first year, restaurant letter grades — either an A, B, or C — would be posted online only.

But after that, as long as the program’s roll-out goes smoothly, the grades would be posted in storefront windows of every restaurant across Boston, resembling systems New York and other cities have been using for years.

“We want to make it as simple as we can for people to understand the health conditions at our restaurants,” said William Christopher, head of Boston’s Inspectional Services Department, which will oversee the program.

Christopher said he went to New York City recently to review that city’s program, which began in 2010. He also has researched grading systems in other cities, including Los Angeles, which has been issuing grades since 1997.

Locally, Newton launched a similar restaurant-rating program last month.

A Globe report in May detailed how a review by city inspectors 2014 found serious health code violations at nearly half of Boston’s food service vendors, including restaurants, food trucks, and cafeterias. However, Christopher said the city had been considering the grading system idea prior to that report.

Christopher cited how officials in other cities have said their grading systems have spurred improvements: reducing health violations, improving public awareness about food safety, and even boosting business for restaurants, by increasing competition for owners to keep cleaner stores.

“Everyone wants to be an A rating, so it motivates restaurateurs,” Christopher said in an interview Monday.

But such systems have also faced criticism. Some have questioned assertions that the grading systems lead to improved conditions, and others have accused the ratings of being arbitrary. Luz, president and chief executive of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, reacted cautiously to the new initiative. He said such rating systems can oversimplify the results of restaurant inspections, which he noted the City of Boston already makes available online in more detail.

And the restaurant association thingy would be expected to say nothing else, using talking points from the National Restaurant Association. Go back and look at the crap that was hurled when Toronto adopted a red-yellow-green system in 2001 (or 02?).

I prepared a court brief on why the system was valid, but it never went to court because once a system is introduced, it’s hard to get rid of.

We’ve spent the last 15 years trying to determine the most effective disclosure systems.

Restaurant association types could do the same.

Philly comes clean with inspection data

The Philadelphia Health Department says it has changed its policy and is moving to post restaurant inspection reports as quickly as possible. reports the decision announced Monday marks a shift from the department’s long-standing policy of keeping inspection reports secret for 30 days.

The website reports Philadelphia is the only major city in the country to withhold inspection results from the public for a significant length of time.

Health Department spokesman Jeff Moran says the non-disclosure period isn’t required by code and isn’t consistent with the mayor’s open-data policy.

Officials say the withholding period has existed for at least three decades.

The health department inspects about 12,000 food establishments each year, including 5,000 eat-in restaurants.

Those inspections have been an ongoing problem for one restaurant.

Joy Tsin Lau, an institution in Chinatown, has well over 250 health code violations over six years- some deemed serious a public health nuisance.

It’s a history the manager didn’t want to talk about in September.

 “It’s outrageous, I just don’t understand how it’s still open,” says Sammy Green.

She was among one hundred lawyers who got sick with a norovirus after a banquet at Joy Tsin Lau in February.

Sammy says, “It was easily the worst couple days of my life.”

A health department inspection two weeks before the banquet found serious violations including a lack of soap in the employee bathroom.

A lawyer for the restaurant refused comment.

Richard Kim is representing Sammy in a lawsuit against the restaurant. “It’s a sordid history, it’s amazing to see that a business can operate with these kinds of violations in place,” Kim says.

One week after the banquet, another inspection found 41 violations. But customers wouldn’t have known because the inspection reports were kept secret for 30 days to give restaurants a chance to appeal.


LA County fixes glitch in online reporting of restaurant closures

Restaurant and market closures resulting from public complaints are now posted on the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health website after the county fixed an issue with its data management software. to that the county’s Environmental Health Director Angelo Bellomo called a “software bug,” information about closures that occur during complaint investigations were previously unavailable on the county’s online inspection database.

Rolled out in 2013, the software, Envision Connect, tracks inspection data for retail food facility, food truck, housing, and swimming pool inspections, but it does not track investigations into public complaints about restaurants.

As of Oct. 21, all restaurant closures, which can occur during routine and owner-initiated inspections, complaint investigations and reinspections, are posted online, according to a health department report submitted to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Friday.

“We’ve plugged the gap,” Bellomo said.

The fix is one of several recommendations being implemented after a Los Angeles News Group review of nearly two years of restaurant inspection data found the county’s 17-year-old grading system allows many restaurants and markets to operate with major health threats and gives those facilities high health grades.

Friday’s report is the second monthly progress report on the implementation of those recommendations.

No on-site public disclosure: Saskatchewan says it improves access to restaurant inspection info

Do you ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes at your favourite eating establishment? Saskatchewan residents can find out by going to Inspection InSite – a website that shows public health inspector reports for about 5,000 public eateries including restaurants, fast food outlets, caterers, mobile food vendors, ice cream stands, public cafeterias, dining rooms and hospital kitchens.

The province began posting restaurant inspection information online in 2009. However, a new website is more user-friendly and provides more detailed information about infractions.

Tablet technology is replacing hand-written reports by public health inspectors, which eliminates the need for time-consuming transcription, brings more consistency to reporting, and allows real-time updates to the website, Health Minister Dustin Duncan said Tuesday. Since the new electronic system began at the end of March, about 60 per cent of food service facilities have been inspected.

Philadelphia: Ingredients not on menu

The Philadelphia Inquirer continues its efforts to improve restaurant inspection disclosure in the City of Brotherly Love. Philadelphia Department of Public Health keeps its restaurant inspection reports secret for 30 days, unnecessarily risking the health of unsuspecting diners at restaurants with serious hygiene problems.

Philadelphia’s is the only health department in the nation’s 10 largest cities that has such an asinine policy, as reported last week. Phoenix takes 72 hours to process its reports and make them public, while the rest – including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles – publish them immediately.

Within Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh also posts inspection reports immediately. So do Bucks, Montgomery, and Chester Counties. Across the Delaware, Camden and Burlington Counties post the information online within five days. A metropolis like Philadelphia should be able to keep up. health department spokesman told that sanitation reports are kept confidential for a month to give establishments time to challenge them. It’s fine to allow restaurants to appeal inspectors’ findings, but not at the expense of diners who deserve to know if a restaurant’s cleanliness has been questioned. Besides, there have been only four such appeals since 2009.

The 30-day grace period is too long. It suggests that the health department lacks confidence in its inspectors’ ability to evaluate sanitary conditions. If that is the case, then rather than err on the side of a restaurant that may have a rat or roach problem, the department should improve its inspectors’ skills and reduce the possibility of inaccurate assessments.

The department’s website ( notes that every inspection report is a “snapshot” that “may not be representative of the overall, long-term sanitation and safety status of an establishment.” That’s an important caveat. But it doesn’t mean that having carefully cultivated a reputation for fine dining, Philadelphia should risk it by being too slow to point out which of its restaurants should be avoided.

The Kremlin of local government: Philly restaurant inspections stay secret for 30 days

Of the U.S.’s 10 largest cities, Philadelphia is the only one that does not allow the public to see restaurant inspection reports for 30 days, time in which diners could unknowingly patronize restaurants with serious hygiene problems.

No captionWith the exception of Phoenix, which takes 72 hours to process its reports, the remaining major cities – including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles – publish restaurant inspections immediately, according to a survey by

Pittsburgh posts its reports immediately. So do the counties of Bucks, Montgomery, and Chester, the last of which posts its findings on the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture database. That database includes most of the state, including many Delaware County municipalities, and it posts them without delay.

In New Jersey, Camden County posts results online within three to five business days; Burlington County does so at least as fast. Gloucester County’s website is updated monthly, with limited details.

The Philadelphia policy puzzles experts who wonder why the city would keep restaurant inspections private for so long.

“Give the restaurant a month to fix [the problems]?” asked Jim Chan, recently retired manager of Toronto’s DineSafe program.

“Is that fair to the public? Is that good health policy? No.”

“This seems like a strange protocol,” said Michael P. Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. “It certainly doesn’t help the customer.”

Andres Marin, professor of culinary arts at Community College of Philadelphia, said a weeklong delay might be acceptable to fix minor problems.

“But the question should be: What is the reason that we’re making these public?” Marin said. “We want to let the public know about the restaurant’s cleanliness and the way they’re handling the food. Withholding a report for 30 days makes no sense.”

sleeper1Philadelphia Public Health Department spokesman Jeff Moran said reports are kept under wraps so owners of food establishments can challenge a sanitarian’s findings.

How did the policy begin?

“My understanding is that this has been a long-standing policy, that it arose from [the] fact that [the] proprietor has [a] 30-day period to appeal an inspection,” city Health Commissioner James Buehler wrote via email Monday.

On Feb. 10, a city health employee inspected Joy Tsin Lau, a dim sum eatery with a banquet hall on Arch Street, and found improperly stored food, no soap in the employees’ restroom, and mouse droppings.

Her findings were kept secret. Seventeen days later, on Feb. 27, about 100 lawyers and law students were stricken with food poisoning after attending a banquet at the restaurant. Many were treated in city emergency rooms for what turned out to be norovirus, the leading cause of disease outbreaks from contaminated food in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. City inspectors do not test specifically for norovirus and other pathogens.

“No one would have gone there knowing about mouse droppings and the other sanitation violations,” said lawyer Richard Kim, who represents one of the sickened lawyers in a lawsuit against Joy Tsin Lau. “Nobody would have done that.”

Catherine Adams Hutt, a consultant for the National Restaurant Association, said the city’s 30-day policy was not responsible for sickening the lawyers.

“It doesn’t matter when an inspection report is posted,” Hutt said. “It’s the responsibility of the restaurant owner to correct the violations. There’s no excuse for a restaurant for food poisoning 17 days after an inspection.”

In a subsequent editorial, the disclosure this week by that the city’s Health Department keeps its food-inspection reports secret for 30 days is the latest example of why the department is the Kremlin of local government.

Information is released on a need-to-know basis, if you can negotiate the maze set up to keep the public in the dark.

When it comes to food inspections, for instance, the department boasts of its transparency and posts online the full inspection reports on every institution it inspects, including the city’s 5,000 eat-in restaurants.

Now, reveals that those reports are kept offline for 30 days, which happens to be just enough time for a restaurant to pass a reinspection.

Even if you do find the inspection reports ( the department tells us too little by telling us too much. The raw reports are posted online, noting whether an establishment is in or out of compliance in 56 categories.

A regular member of the eating public would have trouble making sense of the reports, which are a jumble of bureaucratese.

One thing evident is that some restaurants are inspected again and again yet never can get their act together to pass an inspection.

Simpler public disclosure and enforcement with teeth would go a long way toward giving the public confidence – and that would benefit the entire food industry.


Hold Australian restaurants accountable: Food ratings in one state, shot down in another

Sometimes I don’t understand this country called Australia.

western-australia-kangaroo-beachTen days ago, Canberra, the former sheep-farm now acting as the Washington, D.C. of Australia, decided to abandon any plans for restaurant inspection disclosure. I did a live radio interview with a Canberra station, in my goalie skates, during an (ice) hockey practice on Sunday that Australian Capital Territory chief health officer, Paul Kelly, decided he was too busy to do.

Must be nice to have a government job.

Yet the next day, the state of South Australia declared that its pubs, cafés and restaurants will be able to publicly display the food safety rating they receive during council inspections.

A successful trial period has laid the foundation for the new program called the Food Safety Rating Scheme. The rating will be based on the business’s scores for a variety of criteria gathered by council health inspectors.

“Since the scheme started, three, four and five star certificates have been awarded to more than 800 local restaurants, cafes and pubs based on how well they did in their regular council inspection, which is a great result,” said SA Health Director of Food and Controlled Drugs, Dr Fay Jenkins.

“Of the businesses inspected so far, 54 per cent received a certificate with a star rating, demonstrating appropriate food handling skills and a clean and safe food preparation environment.”

“If a business does not meet the national food safety standards they will not be awarded a star rating and appropriate actions will be taken to ensure the business rectifies any problems. In most cases issues are resolved very quickly,” said Dr Jenkins.

Since the South Australian pilot program began, five-star certificates have been awarded to 389 food businesses, four-star-certificates to 328 and three-star certificates to 168.

However, a business will not have any obligation to display their food safety rating because the new scheme is voluntary.

That’s just dumb.

And now, a pizzeria owner has threatened a disgruntled customer with legal action alleging they defamed his business in a negative online review.

Law graduate Julian Tully wrote on travel site TripAdvisor that dining at an Adelaide pizzeria was “the worst service and experience” and warned people to “stay away”.

Mr Tully and friends had attended a $40-a-head birthday banquet on October 10 and alleged they were treated “in a fashion I don’t think was possible”.

“For 7 people we got a tiny amount of food (waiting more than 50 minutes between portions) and when we tried to complain in a reasonable way we literally got told ‘we have had our fill’ and ‘we shouldn’t go out for dinner if we can’t afford it’,” he wrote in the October 11 review. “They then called the cops on us because we walked out. Avoid like the plague!”

Sounds like Australia.