Boston, don’t hide restaurants’ dirty secrets

An editorial in the Boston Globe states that last year, nearly half of the restaurants in Boston were cited by city inspectors for two of the most serious health and sanitary code violations on the books, and about 200 were written up for 10 or more violations, according to a Globe analysis of municipal records published this week. But until reporter Matt Rocheleau’s story, most of these establishments’ customers had no idea they were at risk of becoming ill.

larry.the_.cable_.guy_.health.inspector-213x300-213x300Technically, the information had been available to the public prior to the Globe report. The city publishes an online spreadsheet listing restaurant inspection results, which can be accessed through something called the Mayor’s Food Court, a web portal created in 2001. The site — which is ancient in tech years — also allows users to a search for inspection data by restaurant name. Never heard of it? You have plenty of company.

Lauren Lockwood, the city’s first chief digital officer, knows that’s a problem. “We’re focusing on the distinction of making things available versus accessible,” she said. “The city now makes a truly tremendous amount of information available online; the problem is that the access is user unfriendly.”

A better designed and promoted online database to replace the Mayor’s Food Court would be welcome. But given the serious public health considerations, technology that doesn’t necessarily require the intervention of an IT department should also be used to spread word about sanitary code violations. For instance, the city could send out a weekly e-mail bulletin that lists the latest citations.

Boston should also follow the lead of New York and San Francisco, which require restaurants to post a health code compliance grade where everyone can see. Under New York’s letter grade system, which was enacted in 2010, violations are translated into points. Fewer points mean a higher grade.

I agree.

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

barf.o.meter_.dec_.12-216x300-216x300The 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.

Restaurant inspection and disclosure LA style

A few weeks ago, NBC Los Angeles released an interactive map with confirmed food poisoning cases in L.A. county over the last 18 months. The map was published as a public service, so consumers know which restaurants to possibly avoid. But does this information really help consumers avoid food poisoning?

larry.david.rest.inspecI don’t think it’s very useful as a tool of where you’re going to have foodborne illness,” said Angelo Bellamo, the Director of Environmental Health for L.A. County.

“We’re only able to associate 25 cases each year [in L.A.] where we’ve had an outbreak that is more than a couple of people, and we’re able to verify the restaurant,” Bellamo said. “This is a big problem. It’s really under-reported, and our methods for actually determining whether or not restaurants are causing foodborne illnesses aren’t perfected yet. They’re nowhere near being perfected.”

The issue of concern is the collection of data. Right now, tips of potential contamination are collected through complaints people send to the office. Unfortunately, the information is few and far between. (Seriously, when was the last time you even considered calling the department after a particularly queasy meal?) So, rather than waiting for tips to hit their desks, officials are looking for ways to obtain it themselves.

“The use of social media is vital,” Bellamo said. He mentions a recent investigation where an investigator logged onto Yelp and found a number of complaints directed at a facility. The investigator contacted the reviewers and built the case from there. This is one way of using social media to further investigations, but also a strategy that’s far from perfected. “A lot of information in social media is not very useful, some is not credible, but there are nuggets in there,” Bellamo said. “If we found a way to selectively screen certain words or certain locations, there could be some real value there.” (Other cities have already begun using Twitter to identify outbreaks, which Bellamo believes will soon be part of L.A.’s efforts as well.)

One thing consumers shouldn’t do is simply trust the grade letter on the front window.

“It represents a snapshot in time,” Bellamo said. “That letter grade reflects the last inspection, which took place over the course of a couple of hours. You can’t look at just the letter grade.” Bellamo wants to change the current system, so that instead of simply showing how the last inspection went, to make it include an average of the last six inspections. “Good and bad days can happen to the best and poorest of restaurants,” he said. “An average score would be a lot more indicative of how that restaurant actually operates.”

‘We come from a place of education’ Jersey restaurant inspection

For consumers who really want to get the dirt before they dine, a growing number of New Jersey counties now post restaurant inspection grades online, while some post the entire reports.

Sopranos_season3_episode01In New Jersey, county or municipal health departments are required to conduct annual inspections at all establishments serving food. That includes convenience stores, bars and full-scale restaurants. School cafeterias are inspected twice a year.

These surprise inspections cover all aspects of eatery operations, from cleanliness to proper storage of foods.

Businesses can earn one of three grades in these inspections:

S – Satisfactory: The establishment is found to be operating in substantial compliance.

C – Conditionally Satisfactory: The establishment was in violation of one or more of the New Jersey State Sanitary Codes, Chapter 24 (which deals with retail food establishments and vending machines) and a re-inspection is warranted.

U – Unsatisfactory: Unsanitary or unsafe conditions result in a temporary closure of the establishment.

Camden County Freeholder Carmen Rodriguez, liaison to the county health department. Said she’s seen a definite improvement in her county’s food inspection results since the electronic system was put in place. Businesses realize their customers are paying attention.

“One of the things we’ve seen is there is a bit of an incentive for a restaurant to be self-correcting,” Rodriguez noted. “Because it goes on the web, everyone can see what the findings are. It encourages them to do the right thing. We want to see restaurant’s that are clean and functioning.”

Wendy Carey, chief registered environmental health specialist for the Gloucester County Department of Health, Senior & Disability Services, said, “We come from a place of education.” Inspectors meet with managers and establish a dialogue.

Because it’s all about the celebrities and bureaucratic BS: Food poisoning, filth exposed at popular LA restaurants

When the health inspector showed up at Wolfgang’s Steakhouse in Beverly Hills last fall, he found a cockroach in the hall and poor sanitation in the kitchen. He found enough critical violations, he threatened to suspend their permit and said he’d be back in two weeks to make sure they had cleaned up.

mel-gibson-is-insane_344x372But seven months later, the inspector still has never been back to Wolfgang’s.

The county’s 10 million residents depend on the health department to inspect restaurants often, to make sure they’re clean and safe. But an NBC4 I-Team investigation has found LA County is failing to inspect many restaurants frequently, and food poisoning and filth at some eateries may be the result.

“We could be doing a better job in many areas,” says Angelo Bellomo, the head of the county’s restaurant inspection program, and director of LA County Environmental Health.

Restaurants like Nobu in Malibu, which serves sushi to celebrities like Halle Berry and Mel Gibson, are required to be inspected three times a year, according to LA County Health Department policy.

“I’d like to see three inspections a year in high-risk restaurants,” said LA County’s Bellomo.

Most restaurants are considered “high risk” because they handle raw meat, poultry, and fish.

But when I-Team examined the last two years of all restaurant inspections, it found thousands of high-risk restaurants aren’t getting anywhere near the required three inspections a year.

When 13 people who ate at Nobu contracted potentially deadly Norovirus in November 2014, the restaurant hadn’t had an inspection in over a year — October 2013. Nobu declined to comment to NBC4.

Nobu is hardly the exception.

“I felt terrible. There was headache, shaking, nausea,” Burt Holstein told NBC4, about the food poisoning he and six other family members got after eating at Lunasia Restaurant in Alhambra last May.

Inspectors showed up, ordered the restaurant to correct numerous violations, and were supposed to return in a few weeks.

But eight months later, Lunasia still hasn’t had a return visit from an inspector.

“If the restaurant was shown to have problems, if people have become sick, they should be inspecting the place often,” said food poisoning victim Holstein.

In fact, when there’s a food poisoning investigation at a restaurant, it’s LA County policy that an inspector must return to do a follow-up inspection within two weeks. But that often doesn’t happen.

Last December, the county investigated a complaint of food poisoning at the trendy Coast Cafe at Shutters Hotel in Santa Monica, and an inspector should’ve returned by early January. But records obtained by the I-Team show the inspector never came back, until he got another complaint of food poisoning more than three months later.

Chief inspector Bellomo told the I-Team he hopes the health department will soon start doing more frequent inspections. But an internal Health Department memo, obtained by the I-Team, said “second inspections” of most restaurants “shall not be conducted” this fiscal year because of low “staffing levels.”

Chief Bellomo admitted the problem isn’t money. Instead of filling the 60 or so vacant inspector positions, Bellomo said he’s chosen to hire more health department managers.

“You’re playing Russian roulette when you go out to dinner,” said Dr. Pete Snyder, a nationally known food safety expert who has trained health inspectors. “If you’re only inspecting once or twice a year, then the restaurants don’t fear you anymore.”

Diners are also finding that an “A” grade in the window doesn’t mean a restaurant has been inspected lately, or that it’s necessarily safe. Wolfgang’s, Coast Cafe at Shutter’s, Nobu, and Lunasia all had “A”s when people got sick there or when inspectors found critical violations.

Pittsburgh: a disappointment in hockey and restaurant inspection disclosure

As Pittsburgh continues to grapple with restaurant inspection disclosure – or not — the town of Little Elm, Texas, has decided to add QR codes to the technology that is being utilized by its health services department, in order to help to improve efficiency when it comes to the effort to maintain transparency with restaurant inspection results.

QR-code-SCANVenger-Hunt-300x169Way to go Pittsburgh, you’ve been upstaged by Little Elm. Texas. That’s gotta hurt.

Through the use of this new system, it is possible for people to be able to scan the unique QR codes posted with the inspection signage for each restaurant. Upon scanning, the user will be directed to a website that contains the inspection notes that were made for the restaurant about which the mobile device user is inquiring. This system also allows the results of the inspections to be updated and distributed nearly immediately.

The QR codes based program is based on the same one that has become quite popular in nearby Plano.

The information about a restaurant’s inspection is updated by way of the QRcode as soon as it is complete. This way, residents and visitors to the town will be able to check on the latest scores for that restaurant within a matter of seconds. This, according to Mike Green, the community integrity director.

Green explained by providing an example that said “Let’s say we’re in the kitchen doing the inspection, and you pull into the parking lot of that restaurant,” adding that “As soon as we finish the inspection, the score changes online. You can literally see the newest score of the place you’re about to eat at while you’re in the parking lot.”

A growing number of municipalities are incorporating QR codes into their restaurant inspection systems as it is a highly cost efficient way to upload and share the information with the public.

 

Pittsburgh says no to restaurant grading system

Toronto, New York and Los Angeles have all figured out how to do restaurant inspection grading and make it available on the door.

health_dept_stickerPittsburgh? Not so much.

The restaurant grading system plan went down in Allegheny County Council by a vote of 12-1. And that’s what local restaurant owners were hoping.

“I’m pretty happy. It’s a big weight off a lot of people’s shoulders, I’m sure,” said Robert Storms, the owner of Storms Restaurant.

The plan was approved by the Allegheny County Health Department last September.

The Allegheny County Board of Health thought grades would give diners more food safety informationthan the current pass-fail system.

But restaurants fought the plan every step of the way right up to Tuesday night’s vote.

“This discussion is not about increasing the knowledge and training of food service workers, rather it is about catching, punishing and embarrassing,” said Kevin Joyce, of The Carlton.

Some feared a couple of minor infractions could result in a “B” grade, giving diners the wrong impression.

“I firmly believe that if one of my restaurants receives a grade lower than an ‘A,’ that it will not simply affect that particular restaurant, but it will affect our entire brand,” said Mike Mitcham, of Primanti Bros.

larry.the_.cable_.guy_.health.inspector-213x300The health board’s motive was to incentivize restaurants to strictly follow the rules.

Ryan Bidney, of Irwin, who was visiting Station Square Tuesday, backs that.

“The restaurant, knowing that that letter grade is gonna be presented, I believe that they’ll feel stronger about, you know, wanting to keep up with their standards and keep their standards higher,” said Bidney.

Pittsburgh, there is research on this stuff.

 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

barf.o.meter_.dec_.12-216x300The 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.

How skipping a private equity deal made it easier for Jeni’s to deal with Listeria crisis

John Lowe, the CEO of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, with more than 20 locations and distribution in 1,800 retail stores across the U.S., temporarily closed its stores and shut down production late last month after a pint of its Dark Chocolate ice cream at a store in Nebraska was found to have Listeria.

jenis-ice-cream-leadjpg-3107e469ad83e50eLowe, a part owner in the well-regarded and fast-growing ice cream company, is addressing the crisis head on. He did not back out of an appearance at Columbus Startup Week Tuesday, even talking about how the company is addressing the setback.

His candor is an example of how entrepreneurs should address a crisis, with members of the food safety industry citing it as the proper way to respond.

Lowe and his team did not waver. With uncertainty around the product, they shut down operations until they could gather more information.

“There are points in leadership where the decision is pretty clear, and as we looked at ourselves around the table with very foggy info, but enough facts that we thought: ‘We can’t open the stores.’ If we can’t answer why there is one pint that reportedly got listeria in it, then we can’t open the stores. We can’t serve pregnant women and grandmas. That is just not acceptable. We are not going to have to look in the mirror and decide that we blinked at a crucial time, ensuring the safety of our consumers. In a lot of ways, it was a very simple decision. There was no debate. There was nobody around the table arguing the other way…. We are not sure what comes next. We don’t know what is going to cost, or how we are going to fund it. We are not sure what it leads to in terms or how long we will be closed, and the like.”

Lowe said the company encountered a similar situation not too long ago when the executive team decided to walk away from a private equity transaction. And that decision plays right into the handling of the crisis around the listeria recall. Lowe pointed out the importance of making the right decision, even though it created an uncertain future.

“We didn’t know what walking away would entail. We didn’t know what the next steps would be, but we knew it was the right thing to do and we’d just go figure it out. … Looking back at our decision to walk away from the one private equity deal, we are so glad we did because we are so confident now that it enabled us to handle that situation the right way and we would have other people at the table — voting, not voting, they would not have had the ability to make the decision — but we are not 100 percent sure they would have seen it as clear as we saw it. It was just easier and better for us to look at each other and make that decision.”

Fancy food ain’t safe food, LA edition

When the health inspector showed up at Wolfgang’s Steakhouse in Beverly Hills last fall, he found a cockroach in the hall and poor sanitation in the kitchen. He found enough critical violations, he threatened to suspend their permit and said he’d be back in two weeks to make sure they had cleaned up.

larry.david.rest.inspecBut seven months later, the inspector still has never been back to Wolfgang’s.

The county’s 10 million residents depend on the health department to inspect restaurants often, to make sure they’re clean and safe. But an NBC4 I-Team investigation has found LA County is failing to inspect many restaurants frequently, and food poisoning and filth at some eateries may be the result.

“We could be doing a better job in many areas,” says Angelo Bellomo, the head of the county’s restaurant inspection program, and director of LA County Environmental Health.

Restaurants like Nobu in Malibu, which serves sushi to celebrities like Halle Berry and Mel Gibson, are required to be inspected three times a year, according to LA County Health Department policy.

“I’d like to see three inspections a year in high-risk restaurants,” said LA County’s Bellomo.

Most restaurants are considered “high risk” because they handle raw meat, poultry, and fish.

But when I-Team examined the last two years of all restaurant inspections, it found thousands of high-risk restaurants aren’t getting anywhere near the required three inspections a year.

When 13 people who ate at Nobu contracted potentially deadly Norovirus in November 2014, the restaurant hadn’t had an inspection in over a year — October 2013. Nobu declined to comment to NBC4.

“You’re playing Russian roulette when you go out to dinner,” said Dr. Pete Snyder, a nationally known food safety expert who has trained health inspectors. “If you’re only inspecting once or twice a year, then the restaurants don’t fear you anymore.”

Diners are also finding that an “A” grade in the window doesn’t mean a restaurant has been inspected lately, or that it’s necessarily safe. Wolfgang’s, Coast Cafe at Shutter’s, Nobu, and Lunasia all had “A”s when people got sick there or when inspectors found critical violations.

“Wolfgang’s Steakhouse in Beverly Hills maintains the highest standards,” general manager Michael Connly told the I-Team in a statement.

“Shutter’s on the Beach operates under stringent health and safety standards in food preparation and cleanliness in the industry,” said Shutter’s GM Gregory Day, in an emailed statement to NBC4.

As for their cooks who we caught on camera eating on the job, a major violation, he added “any misconduct that may have taken place will be properly addressed.”

After getting sick at Lunasia, Holstein’s family said they have little faith in LA County’s inspection system or its letter grades.

Toronto looks at daycares, nursing homes for DineSafe

While other cities continue to fight a losing war against restaurant inspection disclosure, Toronto is planning to expand its red-yellow-green placard system to daycares, hospitals, nursing homes and school cafeterias, 20 months after a Ryerson University/Star investigation revealed serious gaps in the city’s heralded DineSafe program.

toronto.dinesafeDr. David McKeown, Toronto’s medical officer of health is recommending city council expand DineSafe to food-serving institutions including daycares, hospitals, nursing homes and school cafeterias. They would have to prominently display green (pass), yellow (cautionary pass) or red (fail) health inspection results.

McKeown also wants the notices posted for public pool and spa water tests.

Expanding DineSafe disclosure “will increase compliance with health and safety requirements and result in improved public health,” he states in a report released Monday.

About 2,000 food-serving institutions are not covered by stringent DineSafe requirements introduced 14 years ago and credited with reducing dangerous health violations by Toronto restaurants.

Because daycares, hospitals, nursing homes and other institutions “serve vulnerable populations, they are considered high-risk food premises requiring at least three compliance inspections annually,” the report states.

“You guys get the credit for pushing us to disclose,” Toronto Public Health food safety manager Jim Chan said at the time.

However, institutions were not forced to display green, yellow or red signs at their entrances.

McKeown’s proposed bylaw would expand DineSafe to “premises where food or milk is manufactured, processed, prepared, stored, handled, displayed, distributed, transported, sold or offered for sale, but does not include a private residence.”

Does food safety inspection disclosure work in the UK? Sortof

The UK Food Standards Agency reports:

The evaluation was commissioned with the Policy Studies Institute in 2011 and ran until mid-2014.  It explored the impact of the FHRS and the FHIS on local authorities, consumers, businesses, food hygiene compliance and the incidence of foodborne disease. The evaluation and other research findings have been discussed by the FSA Board today.

rest.inspection.disclosure.ukIn England, Wales and Northern Ireland businesses are rated from 0 – 5, with 0 being the lowest rating and 5 being the highest. Businesses rated with a 3 or above are considered to be generally satisfactory or better. The FSA recommends consumers choose to eat in these ‘compliant’ establishments.

These final reports provide evidence that the FHRS had a positive impact on business compliance levels. These showed that there was a significant increase in ‘broad compliance’ (equivalent to ratings of 3 to 5) in the first year, and a significant increase in ‘full compliance’ (rating of 5) in the second year in local authority areas after the FHRS was introduced, compared with areas where the scheme was not yet operating.  There was also a significant decrease in the proportion of businesses with very poor levels of compliance in the first two years after launch.

For Scotland, although the general pattern was the same for FHIS, the changes in compliance levels were not statistically significant.

The reports also include findings on consumer views about the scheme and provide some interesting insights.  For example, those using the schemes said they were more likely to refer to hygiene information when in an unfamiliar location, or eating with vulnerable people or for special occasions when planning meals out at Christmas or Valentine’s Day.