How about disclosure? Wisconsin restaurants support new food safety standards

Ed Lump, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, writes in the LaCrosse Tribune that to say food safety in restaurants and other food outlets is important is an understatement. However, the public doesn’t hear much about it unless there is an actual outbreak of foodborne illness. Occasionally, awareness is heightened by publication in local newspapers or TV segments about restaurant inspection reports.

restaurant.inspectionOn Jan. 1, we took another big step forward as a new law (strengthening a 20-year-old existing law) went into effect. The original law requires that every restaurant in Wisconsin, regardless of size, have at least one manager on staff certified in food safety (Certified Food Protection Manager). To become certified, the manager has to pass a state approved exam.

The existing law also requires that a Certified Food Protection Manager be recertified every five years. However, recertification was accomplished by class time — no exam. Now an exam is required for both original certification and recertification. WRA feels this is the best way to ensure the manager demonstrates knowledge and is up-to-date on current science and food codes. By the way, the city of Milwaukee has required this since 2008, which our association also supported.

This is why food safety knowledge accountability is critical. WRA supported this stricter re-certification process because it helps to protect customers, restaurants and our industry from dangerous and costly outbreaks of foodborne illness.

Lump doesn’t say whether that certified manager has to be present or at home.

That’s where disclosure can play a role.

Sari Lesk of Stevens Point Journal Media, home of Portage county, Wisconsin, writes that Portage County diners can now go online, before they go out, to find out how a local restaurant performed in its most recent health inspection.

Public access to the inspection reports, contained on a portal called Healthspace, went live Monday. A link to the portal is available on the county’s home page.

restaurant.inspection.la.porn.mar.13The inspections date back to July 2013 and will, over time, display the results for three years’ worth of data. The information is organized alphabetically by restaurant name.

Users can tell if a restaurant’s health violations fall under one of three categories:

  • Priority: Violations such as improper cooking, reheating, cooling, or handwashing. These violations are known to cause foodborne illnesses. Uncorrected priority observations usually result in a reinspection.
  • Priority foundation:Violations such as no soap or single-use toweling available for handwashing, failure of the person in charge to properly train employees, not maintaining required documentation, labeling or records. These observations support or enable a priority violation and may contribute to a foodborne illness. Priority foundation observations will be reexamined during the next routine inspection.
  • Core:Violations that usually relate to general sanitation, operational controls, sanitation standard operating procedures, facilities or structures, equipment design, or general maintenance. Core observations will be reexamined during the next routine inspection.

The website also lists recommendations for correcting the violations, and notes whether they were corrected in a follow-up inspection.

Public health environmental specialist Lindsay Benaszeski cautions that the information should be looked at as a snapshot in time, but that the business owners she’s told about the online access have largely been receptive to the idea, adding, “It’s kind of a way to showcase their facility if they’re doing a great job,” she said.

Some restaurant owners disagree, however. Jim Billings, president of the Portage County Tavern League and owner of Final Score, said he thinks the information could be easily misconstrued by someone who does not work in the restaurant business.

Hawaii department of health fines $8,000 for food safety violations

The state Department of Health has cited a Waimalu restaurant for intentionally removing the posted yellow “Conditional Pass” placard from its facility, and for food safety violations. 3W Restaurant Group LLC., which does business as Ichiben, was slapped with an $8,000 fine.

doug.honolulu.rest.inspecThe restaurant, which is located on Kaahumanu Street in Waimalu, may request a hearing to contest the notice. Peter Oshiro, the Department of Health’s Environmental Health program manager, says this is only the second incident involving intentional removal of a placard, with more than 2-thousand inspections completed.

 

Red-green disclosure for Simcoe county (that’s in Canada)

Barrie, I miss you.

The Canadian town, north of Toronto, was home to my aunt and uncle, who I enjoyed hanging out with (they let me sleep with whoever my girlfriend was).

orillia.rest.disclosureNow, the general public is getting a little more insight into the cleanliness of Simcoe-Muskoka’s 3,900 food establishments.

At the beginning of the month, green placards began popping up in the windows of restaurants, convenience stores and other places where food is served, sold or prepared as part of the Inspection Connection initiative launched late in 2014 by the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit.

With roughly 20 food inspectors responsible for looking into the 3,900 establishments, which include 1,100 restaurants, it will take a bit of time to get the new signs up throughout the region, said Steven Rebellato, director of health protection services for the health unit, but he is hopeful the distribution will be complete in the next month or so.

Inspection of food establishments is nothing new for the health unit, but promoting the results both through a pass or fail placard and an all-encompassing website (inspectionconnection.ca) is.

“Visibility is the change,” Rebellato said. “Most health units have this type of program in place.”

Visitors to food establishments in the City of Toronto or York Region will be familiar with the placards. Toronto’s, which features a green (pass), yellow (conditional pass) or red (closure) card, is one of the oldest in the province, spanning some 13 years.

Simcoe-Muskoka’s program only features a pass or close option.

“There are only two signs, which is consistent with our approach since we started,” Rebellato said.

The decision to only have the two signs came from consultation with the operators of the establishments as well.

“If you put a yellow in my door, you might as well put a red, because (patrons) don’t know what that means,” Rebellato said, using an anecdote from a restaurateur on King Street West in Toronto, where there are dozens of restaurants in direct competition.

“We didn’t want to confuse the public.”

Worst words a bureaucrat can say.

Hawaii restaurant cited for removing yellow placard

The Hawaii State Department of Health has issued a Notice of Violation and Order against 3 W Restaurant Group LLC d.b.a. Ichiben for $8,000 for intentionally removing the posted yellow “CONDITIONAL PASS” placard from its facility and for food safety violations cited during the health inspection resulting in the issuance of the yellow placard.

doug.honolulu.rest.inspec“With more than 2,000 inspections completed since the start of the new placarding system, we’ve seen excellent compliance with the food industry; this is only the second incident involving intentional removal of a placard,” said Peter Oshiro, Environmental Health program manager.  “The program is a huge success and after completing the most challenging inspections involving eating places in the higher-risk category, we are well on track to complete the inspections for all licensed food establishments this year.”

A food establishment may face fines of $2,000 per day for removing an inspection placard posted by DOH and $1,000 per day for each critical violation that led to the facility receiving a yellow placard. Placard removal is a serious violation because this act intentionally places profit above health and safety and compromises the public’s trust and their right to know when violations occur during an inspection.

So should restaurant inspection disclosure: Health Star Ratings should be compulsory, Australian health groups say

Brisbane and other Australian cities have this system of restaurant inspection disclosure where a vendor get stars, but the posting is voluntary.

eat.safe.brisbaneThat isn’t what they do in Toronto, Los Angeles, New York and hundreds of other cities.

I’ve asked why the system is voluntary, and the answer usually involves a lot of muttering, something about not pissing off the industry, and co-operation.

Public health is there to protect public health. That’s it.

So while it’s nice that four leading Australian health groups have called on the new Federal Health Minister Sussan Ley and the Australian government to make the new Health Star Ratings system compulsory for packaged food products, it would be nicer if they included mandatory restaurant inspection disclosure.

At least they have mandatory disclosure: Hawaii switching vendors after flawed food safety inspection system

The state is switching vendors after spending thousands of dollars on a flawed electronic system for food safety inspections. The Department of Health paid Paragon Bermuda $169,939 for the system that was supposed to cover billing, inspections, and online public access. After three years of problems, however, inspectors have gone back to manually filling out paperwork as the state starts the process to solicit bids from other vendors.

doug.honolulu.rest.inspec“One of the big problems was when the inspectors used the system in the field, it freezes up, it was very slow, and that was very frustrating for our staff,” explained Peter Oshiro, DOH environmental health program manager.

The state upgraded to an electronic system for restaurant inspections in September 2012, but the database is only available for internal use. Oshiro said it’s unclear whether all that information can be transferred into a new system or if the state will have to start over with the next vendor that could be in place by the summer.
“We figure cut our losses now, get out of this bad system, and hopefully we’ve refined our procurement process to the point where we’ll get another better vendor the next time,” said Oshiro.

It’s a good thing: Restaurant inspection disclosure in Philadelphia

According to an editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer, much about restaurants is a matter of taste, but we can all agree on minimizing the involvement of rodents and bacteria. Fortunately, a cadre of city food-safety inspectors stands between Philadelphia’s diners and its noroviruses. Unfortunately, their work is about as difficult to trace as a case of food poisoning.

inspection.philadelphiaIt’s not just that the city’s restaurant inspection reports are tucked away in an obscure corner of the Web, but also that any layman who takes the trouble to find them will be hard-pressed to understand their meaning and import. How many violations are too many? Which conditions are cause for the most concern? The Department of Public Health’s six-page explanation and annotation of its standard “Food Facility Inspection Report” will defeat all but the most curious and patient consumers.

It makes for a stark contrast with the letter grades that restaurants in New York and Los Angeles have to display prominently. Although New Jersey’s rules are less robust, its restaurants must post notice of whether their most recent inspections were “satisfactory.” Philadelphia mandates nothing of the kind.

Into this breach comes a searchable database compiled by The Inquirer and Philly.com and unveiled this week at philly.com/cleanplates. With nearly 70,000 inspection reports spanning the past five years, the database encompasses 12,000 restaurants and other institutions, from stadiums to schools. It also groups them by notable restaurateur (Stephen Starr, Jose Garces) and location (Reading Terminal Market, the airport). And it helpfully highlights the more serious and repeat violations, along with neighborhood averages for comparison.

Besides making food-safety findings more transparent, the database – like a separate effort by City Paper and AxisPhilly that debuted last month – showcases the work of about 35 so-called sanitarians and supervisors who handle the daunting task of inspecting 5,000 restaurants and 7,000 other kinds of kitchens. They have made substantial progress in increasing the frequency of inspections to at least yearly for most establishments, while honing their focus on the conditions most likely to cause food-borne illnesses.

But the reports also reveal that repeat violators present one of the greatest challenges to the city. That may be because the inspectors prefer a collaborative approach that works well for most establishments but fails when eateries lack the will or ability to address persistent problems. Health officials don’t have the power to impose major penalties, so they rely on other departments and the courts to take action in the most recalcitrant cases, with uneven results.

Greater transparency would be a relatively easy and inexpensive remedy. Given the restaurant industry’s importance to Philadelphia, it’s puzzling that the city has done so little to help consumers reward good practices. From a simplified rating system to mandatory public notices, the city has a range of options for appealing to the public appetite for food safety.

How clean is your favorite Philadelphia restaurant?

To better understand how Philadelphia enforces food regulations, The Inquirer and Philly.com created a database of nearly 70,000 inspection reports. The public can query www.philly.com/cleanplates for restaurants, school lunchrooms, nursing homes, even prisons (they are particularly clean), back to mid-2009.

gyllenspoon.rest.inspecSome inspectors’ comments are not for the squeamish.

When one visited Jack’s Firehouse, the Fairmount eatery with historic cachet, on July 23, she found foods “not covered throughout the establishment” and cheese and bacon held warm enough to breed bacteria.

Mouse droppings were seen in 20 different locations – “on prep table next to small dough mixer,” “on shelves in the walk-in cooler,” and even “on deli slicer.”

The 33 separate violations were a record for Jack’s, but many were not new. The restaurant had been described as “not satisfactory” in nine of its 10 previous inspections over four years.

At inspection No. 11, inspector Tiana Montgomery-Noel wrote in her July report that the place should “cease and desist” all operations until it met two conditions: “zero mouse droppings” and having a certified food-safety worker present at all times. Owner Mick Houston closed voluntarily and met both requirements in four days; he has vowed to do better.

restaurant_food_crap_garbage_10There is no evidence that violations there or elsewhere led to foodborne illness.

In the consumer-friendliness arena, Philadelphia is far from alone in not summarizing findings for diners. Bucks and Montgomery Counties don’t do this either. Many food-safety experts say oversimplification can lead to misunderstandings. But summaries are “easier for the public to understand,” said Lydia Johnson, food-safety director for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, which conducts most inspections around the state outside Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Johnson said her staff would handle ongoing serious violations with “a progressive response” – a warning letter followed by citations, administrative hearings, and, if necessary, fines.

With all that can go wrong in a full-service establishment, it’s hard to get a perfect report.

Even without an inspection report, customers can gauge a restaurant’s health standards – or not

Ken Gruen, a retired Philadelphia restaurant inspector (“sanitarian”) who advises food establishments at Philadelphia International Airport told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “If the bathroom is kept in good condition – it’s clean, there is soap, there are paper towels, there is not a lot of litter on the floor – probably the kitchen is the same.”

NEHA.sylvanusMaybe but not necessarily.

Other signs of general sloppiness, health, and hygiene could be indicators as well. Is the knife used to slice limes at the bar left on the counter without cleaning? Has the buffet been ignored for hours? If the kitchen is visible, are workers wearing gloves? Is your waiter a mess?

More specific measures, like storing cheese at temperatures that are too cold for dangerous microbes, are noted in official inspection reports – if you have the patience and knowledge to interpret them.

To make them easier to understand – there are hundreds of potential code violations – all restaurants in New Jersey must display overall findings as “Satisfactory,” “Conditionally Satisfactory,” or “Unsatisfactory,” although the sign may not be visible from outside. Some cities (Toronto, Pittsburgh) post green, yellow, or red placards in the window. Another handful (New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco) put up consumer-friendly A-B-C letter grades.

doug.honolulu.rest.inspecPhiladelphia does none of the above.

No scoring system “has been found to be effective for food safety,” said Palak Raval-Nelson, who oversees inspections of nearly 12,000 food establishments for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.

In fact, there is limited evidence that inspections themselves protect against foodborne illness. They are a snapshot in time: Only a stroke of luck would have the sanitarian present at the exact moment that a refrigerator malfunctions or a cook shows up sick.

But they may work in a different way.

“No one wants to be embarrassed,” said Doug Powell, a food-safety consultant in Australia and anchor of barfblog. “So inspections and disclosure systems make [restaurateurs] try harder. And it also contributes to the public conversation about food safety.”

Food-safety laws are written and enforced almost entirely at the state and local levels. Since the late 1990s, most jurisdictions, including Philadelphia, have adopted U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommendations that for the first time are based on the science of disease transmission. Cooking to a temperature high enough to kill microorganisms is a high-priority item; ceilings with missing tiles is low.

“It is really hard, I think, for a consumer to make very much sense of these detailed reports,” said food-safety specialist Craig Hedberg, a professor in the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health.

But Hedberg doesn’t think inspections prevent much sickness anyway.

“We talk about food-borne illness like it’s a single thing,” Hedberg said. In reality, there are several kinds, each causing extremely uncomfortable (and sometimes dangerous) diarrhea and abdominal cramps, from one day to a week:

Between 10 percent and 20 percent of outbreaks are due to salmonella, increasingly carried on fresh produce that will be served without cooking. It’s not visible, and washing often fails to remove it.

Chopping and mixing quantities of, say, parsley or tomatoes, as most full-service restaurants must do, could spread the contamination through the entire batch, however. “The restaurant will simply be a pass-through,” Hedberg said. “The best they can do is try not to make the problem worse.”

And an inspection will not stop it.

Another 10 percent to 20 percent of outbreaks are traced to Clostridium perfringens. The bacteria grow and produce a toxin when spores germinate after cooking if foods are not cooled quickly enough before storage. It used to be more common, and has been successfully reduced through the priority that inspectors place on temperature control and cross-contamination, Hedberg said.

More than 50 percent of outbreaks in the United States are norovirus. It is spread when infected workers handle salads and serve sandwiches. Frequent hand washing helps, but ill employees simply should not show up for work. “Workers can come in sick a few hours a year,” Hedberg said, enough to start an outbreak but unlikely to be spotted during an inspection.

So what would work?

qr.code.rest.inspection.gradeFor a 2006 paper in the Journal of Food Protection, Hedberg led a team that compared various characteristics of 22 restaurants that had experienced outbreaks of food-borne illness and 347 that had not. The main difference was the presence of a certified kitchen manager – someone who has the power to change attitudes and atmosphere. These managers are regular kitchen employees or supervisors who have received additional training in food safety. They can spot and respond to risks, like sending home workers with symptoms of norovirus.

Toronto’s DineSafe program began in 2001. The most critical violations are noted in simple language on a green, yellow, or red sign posted out front. Ninety-two percent of restaurants get a “green” on their first inspection, said Sylvanus Thompson (above, left, pretty much as shown), associate director of Toronto Public Health. Polls show the program is overwhelmingly popular.

Red-yellow-green disclosure for San Jose

“Whether you are grabbing a quick lunch or settling in for a fancy dinner, you want to know that the food was prepared in a kitchen that is clean and safe.” That’s how county supervisor Joe Simitian summarized his push for a major countywide system that will eventually rate every one of the 8,000 dining places in the county and later all food trucks and caterers.

doug.honolulu.rest.inspecIt will require posting in the front a placard with a red, yellow or green color and also put online the complete results of most recent inspections along with any past violations.

This significant public health program launched over the past year by the county’s Department of Environmental Health has been tested, vetted and analyzed at workshops along with a huge number of public comments. There are also on-going class sessions for restaurant operators and their staffs. And now it is ready for a rollout.

A variation of this program has been working for several years in many other jurisdictions including Sacramento, San Diego, Alameda and Los Angeles counties (and Toronto; this is what it looks like in Honolulu earlier this week, right) but our county has carefully tweaked it to fit locally. And it appears to have the support of the dining industry, according to DEH Consumer Protection Director Mike Balliett.

The website at sccgov.org/SCCDineOut will provide the food facility inspection results and also list the restaurants that have been shut down for food safety violations over the past six months.

The county’s 38 inspectors will begin using the placard and website system as they complete their regular inspections here in San Jose and all the other cities.