Make it mandatory: Voluntary restaurant inspection ratings are silly

According to new research by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA), only a third (34%) of us regularly check food hygiene ratings before eating in a restaurant or takeaway. With an estimated 4.3 million meals expected to be eaten out over this festive period, FSA is urging people to check a restaurant’s food hygiene rating before booking this Christmas.

respect-authorityThe research, released ahead of the expected Christmas spike in restaurant bookings, found that although food hygiene and safety were of concern for 37% of people, only 6% said that they actively consider the food hygiene rating when deciding where to eat. Other priorities included:

quality/type of food (58%)

own experience of the place (32%)

location/convenience (23%)

good service (21%)

price (20%)

appearance (20%)

recommendation (19%)

Mark O’Neill, senior advisor, local authority policy and delivery, Food Standards Agency in Northern Ireland said: ‘We are pleased to see that so many food businesses in Northern Ireland are already compliant with the Food Hygiene Rating Act, which came into operation in October, making it mandatory for food businesses to display their hygiene ratings. This means that around 90% of businesses should now be displaying hygiene information on a green and black sticker somewhere easy to spot outside of their premises. We expect that consumers will be pleased with this development as our recent survey showed that 95% of people in Northern Ireland believe that businesses should have to display their ratings, which now they do.

We are now urging people to look for hygiene ratings and choose restaurants which score three or above this Christmas.

Nearly 700 NYC restaurant-goers found something gross in their food last year

Yoav Gonen of the New York Post reports restaurant customers have called in a record number of complaints to the city’s 311 hot line for the second year in a row.

mr-creosote-monty-pythonRecords show there were 10,373 complaints to the municipal call center in the most recent fiscal year, which ended June 30 — up from 8,653 the year before.

The top complaints were the discovery of rodents, insects or garbage inside an eatery — with 2,832 such calls, up from 2,213.

New York diners also complained of spoiled food (997), concerns about a restaurant’s letter grade (804) — such as no grade being posted — and bare hands coming in touch with their food (775).

An additional 676 grubsters said they found a foreign object — usually a piece of hair or plastic — in their meal, an 18 percent increase.

The surge came even as the city rated 92.7 percent of the city’s 24,000-plus eateries with a grade of “A” in fiscal 2016, according to the Mayor’s Management Report.

That was close to the 93 percent that got the top grade in fiscal 2015.

Health Department officials didn’t provide data requested by The Post for the number of violations issued to restaurants last year, making it impossible to know whether the complaints spurred a higher number of summonses.

Smart as trees in Sault Ste. Marie: Restaurant grades come to Seattle

The Sault (pronounced Sue) is on my mind today.

barf-o-meter_-dec_-12-216x300-216x3001-216x300-1-216x300-216x300Lots of feedback about the Esposito brothers (Tony and Phil) who hail from Sault Ste. Marie (in Ontario, Canada) and, more importantly, most excellent graduate student Katie, who hails from the Sault, got an undergrad at Guelph, did her Masters research in New Zealand and got her degree from Kansas State.

So when JoNel Aleccia of The Seattle Times e-mailed me to get my take on the county’s proposed restaurant inspection disclosure system, I used it as an excuse to get back in touch with Katie.

It’s taken nearly two years, but King County restaurants will soon start posting storefront signs that display their health-inspection status at a glance, giving diners a new view into food safety.

Exactly what those signs will say, however, is still up to the public to decide.

Starting in January, officials with Public Health — Seattle & King County plan to roll out a long-anticipated public grading system that rates restaurants based on an aggregate score of four recent inspections.

Depending on the results, a restaurant may be ranked excellent, good, fair or needs improvement on signs that could feature smiley-face emoji in shades of green and yellow.

“It’s exciting,” said Becky Elias, Public Health food and facilities section manager. “We feel like this is thorough and evidence-based.”

Local diners can vote on six variations of the placards online by Thursday, Nov. 17.

Elias and her crew originally thought a restaurant-grading system could be in place by the start of 2015, but it took longer than anticipated to get it right, she said.

Local health officials overhauled the system that regularly sends 55 inspectors to review more than 11,000 permanent food businesses and an additional 3,000 temporary sites in King County.

With the help of Daniel E. Ho, a Stanford University law professor who has studied restaurant-rating programs extensively, they refined and standardized the way inspectors make decisions and then came up with placards to convey that information to the public.

Throughout the process, they sought out opinions from everyone involved, including restaurant owners and food-safety advocates. Such collaboration was appreciated, said Patrick Yearout, director of recruiting and training for Ivar’s restaurant company, which operates 25 sites in King County.

Food-safety advocates said they’re pleased that King County is unveiling a new ratings system, but they’re not enthusiastic about the smiley-face signs.

Sarah Schacht, 37, of Seattle, is a two-time victim of E. coli food poisoning who has been lobbying the county to help warn consumers about restaurants with unsatisfactory inspections. She’d prefer to see numeric scores on the new signs, not just emoji.

“If you look at these placard examples, in the end, the information you’re supposed to absorb and make a decision on comes down to the size of the smile on the smiley face,” she said. “I think the options are better than nothing, but they’re problematic.”

seattle-rest-inspect-disclose-nov-16Doug Powell, a former Kansas State University food scientist who runs the food-safety site, barfblog.com, said the proposed King County signs “all seem too busy.” If he had to choose, however, he’d choose options B or D, he said.

“At least they are asking people, which is good,” he added.

Katie and I e-mailed, and she said she preferred C, because it was clearly visible from distance, the colour is prominent, the universal symbol avoids language barriers and has better use of space on the card.

I like B and D because the gauge reminded me of something Katie created years ago while goofing around.

And this is my favorite Tragically Hip song, but no live versions of it.

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.

Brag about a good restaurant inspection store, diners more positive

It’s a stretch to say that posting restaurant inspection results – letter grades, color cards, numbers, smiley faces – affects much of anything because of the limitations involved in studying the question.

larry-david-rest-inspecDo letter grades reduce foodborne illness?

Probably not.

Do they make food safer?

Probably not.

Do managers pay attention and go crazy on staff when they get a lousy score?

Probably

Do consumers pay attention?

Probably.

Given these exceedingly scientific answers, what I’ve observed over the past 15 years is that the biggest benefit of public disclosure is its role in the overall rise of food-safety-kind-that-makes-people-barf awareness.

Here’s another group having having-a-go at the role of inspections and disclosure.

Ensuring the safety of food served in restaurants continues to be an essential issue in the hospitality industry. An important part of the efforts to stem the outbreak of foodborne illnesses are the mandatory inspections of any entity that serves food to the public.

rest-inspection-color-sacramentoUnfortunately, while posting food safety scores is intended to help consumers make better dining choices, interpreting these scores can often be difficult and confusing. The purpose of this study is to use information processing theory as a framework to investigate how consumers evaluate food safety inspection scores. To achieve this goal, this research provides an account of the effect of food safety concern on consumers’ attitudes toward restaurants under conditions of both positive and negative health inspection results.

The results identify a moderating effect of health score in the formation of consumers’ attitudes toward restaurants. The downstream effects on expected satisfaction and behaviors are also established.

Understanding responses to posted restaurant food safety scores: An information processing and regulatory focus perspective

International Journal of Hospitality Management, Volume 60, January 2017, Pages 67–76

Kimberly J. Harris, Ed. D., Lydia Hanks, Ph. D., Nathaniel D. Line, Ph. D. and Sean McGinley, Ph. D.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278431916302006

Restaurant inspection grades suppressed in Bermuda

Sam Strangeways of The Royal Gazette writes that environmental health officials have refused to reveal the health and safety “grades” given to every restaurant in Bermuda.

pati-access-info-bermudaThe information was requested by The Royal Gazette under the Public Access to Information Act but the Department of Health’s information officer denied our application after consultation with Susan Hill Davidson, the acting Chief Environmental Health Officer, on four grounds.

This newspaper sought the information in order to publish a list of all restaurants and their most recent grades, similar to the inspection lookup tool offered by NYC Health.

The New York version enables members of the public to search a database and retrieve health inspection results for each of New York City’s 24,000 restaurants before deciding where to eat.

It also mandates disclosure on the entrance, using letter grades (NY.C. and L.A.) or color grades (Toronto) for example.

In Bermuda, it is estimated there are between 150 and 200 food and beverage premises.

The Department of Health said in its refusal letter that to comply with our request would, “by reason of the nature of the records requested, require the retrieval and examination of such records [and] cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with or disruption of the other work of the public authority”.

Information officer Verlina Bishop wrote that complying with the request would require pulling the inspection records of each individual file of food and drink establishments.

“The files are maintained by street address and are not filed according to food and beverage establishments,” she said. “The environmental health section of the Department of Health does not have the manpower to review and compile the records requested.”

Other reasons given for the refusal to disclose information were that the records contained personal, commercial and confidential information, exempt from disclosure.

Restaurant inspection grades easier to spot in Northern Ireland

Starting from, Friday 7 October, people in Northern Ireland will find it easier to see the food hygiene rating of places they eat out or buy food, as food businesses will now have to display their rating sticker by law.

fhrs-niThe Food Hygiene Rating Act (Northern Ireland) 2016 and associated regulations have come into force, and this new legislation means that the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme is now mandatory, replacing the voluntary scheme run since the end of 2011 by district councils and the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

No matter what the rating of the food business, they will have to by law display the rating sticker given by the district council following inspection. This can range from ‘5’ which means the food hygiene standards are very good, down to ‘0’ where urgent improvement is necessary. This instant and visible hygiene rating information will help people choose where to eat out or shop for food, including restaurants, pubs, cafes, takeaways as well as supermarkets, other food shops and hospitals, care homes and schools.

The FSA has built a case for mandation in England using evidence from Wales where display is mandatory and where there has been an increased positive impact on hygiene standards compared with England. It is also exploring how a viable statutory scheme could be delivered in the future in line with the FSA’s Regulating our Future programme. In the meantime the current voluntary scheme in England is being aligned with the statutory schemes in Wales and N Ireland as far as possible without legislative requirements. 

Pay attention to food sources: Restaurant inspection grades and illness

Restaurants are important settings for foodborne disease outbreaks and consumers are increasingly using restaurant inspection results to guide decisions about where to eat. Although public posting of inspection results may lead to improved sanitary practices in the restaurant, the relationship between inspection results and risk of foodborne illness appears to be pathogen specific.

belgium-rest_-inspect-13To further examine the relationship between inspection results and the risk of foodborne disease outbreaks, we evaluated results of routine inspections conducted in multiple restaurants in a chain (Chain A) that was associated with a large Salmonella outbreak in Illinois. Inspection results were collected from 106 Chain A establishments in eight counties. Forty-six outbreak-associated cases were linked to 23 of these Chain A restaurants. There were no significant differences between the outbreak and non-outbreak restaurants for overall demerit points or for the number of demerit points attributed to hand washing or cross-contamination. Our analyses strongly suggest that the outbreak resulted from consumption of a contaminated fresh produce item without further amplification within individual restaurants. Inspections at these facilities would be unlikely to detect or predict the foodborne illness outbreak because there are no Food Code items in place to stop the introduction of contaminated food from an otherwise approved commercial food source.

The results of our study suggest that the agent and food item pairing and route of transmission must be taken into consideration to improve our understanding of the relationship between inspection results and the risk of foodborne illness in restaurants.

Understanding the relationships between inspection results and risk of foodborne illness in restaurants

Foodborne Pathogens and Disease. September 2016, ahead of print. doi:10.1089/fpd.2016.2137.

Petrona Lee and Craig W. Hedberg

http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/fpd.2016.2137

 

E. coli outbreak shows need for restaurant grading system

Paula Wissel of KNKX reports the Washington Department of Health is still investigating this month’s E. coli outbreak that forced a Seattle restaurant to close temporarily. The Matador in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood has now reopened, but the source of the E. coli that sickened several patrons remains a mystery. Meanwhile, food safety advocates say this latest scare underscores the need for a promised restaurant grading system to be implemented quickly by public health officials.

barf-o-meter_-dec_-12-216x300-216x3001-216x300-1-216x300Back in 1993, Sarah Schacht, along with her mother and little brother, was sickened in the deadly E. coli outbreak linked to undercooked hamburgers at Jack in the Box.  Then, a few years ago, she contracted the foodborne illness again.

“The experience of getting E. coli the second time was much worse. It was feeling like my stomach was being ripped open, I had extreme cramping and I was in and out of the hospital,” Schacht said.

She is one of the primary proponents of restaurants in King County being required to post placards showing what score they received from the health department. She sat on a stakeholders panel convened by the county to come up with a system. Although Public Health of Seattle and King County announced several years ago they were going to implement a system, it has yet to be put in place, which frustrates Schacht.

“They’ve continually rolled back deadlines for this program and so it’s been disappointing to see another outbreak and no posted signs,” Schacht said.

In response, county health officials says they want to make sure that when it launches, the grading system is consistent across eating establishments. The health department has conducted a series of studies to try and figure out how best to obtain that consistency.  A grading system pilot program is scheduled to begin in January.

 

Here’s a couple of suggestions:

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.

larry-the_-cable_-guy_-health-inspector-213x300-213x3001-213x300-1-213x300The 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.

 

Another fairytale: Informed choice on food safety

The paper in Adelaide wrote an opinion piece last week about how consumers basically make faith-based decisions when it comes to food safety.

I recycled an old op-ed in response, and still wondering why the same issues haven’t gained traction after 20 years of publicity in Australia.

cantaloupe.salmonellaThe Advertiser editorial thingies wrote that irony can be really ironic, given that the government department charged with upholding and maintaining food standards in SA treats the public like mushrooms.

By keeping the public in the dark by refusing to release the names of the 621 food outlets in breach of hygiene rules last year, SA Health is denying consumers the right to make an informed choice.

While it is good enough for the NSW State Government to identify offending premises, those who water their gardens with human effluent, sell out of date food and have cockroach-infested kitchens in SA apparently deserve anonymity.

There is more than a whiff of double standards surrounding the secrecy of the data held by SA Health.

On one hand (who writes this crap?), the public is not allowed to know which of their local fast food outlets is cutting food hygiene corners by selling six-day-old schnitzels, and on the other, it wasted no time last week issuing a warning about NT- grown rockmelons being the apparent source of a food poisoning outbreak in SA.

Surely the public is allowed to know the identity of a food retailer that has been found guilty of a major breach of food standards that could potentially have the same impact as eating the dodgy rockmelon.

For a food outlet to be warned several times about using effluent to water gardens simply beggars belief.

SA Health’s repeated warnings to the business owner were akin to being slapped with a wet lettuce leaf.

If such a practice can continue for such an extended period of time, the public can only wonder just what sort of heinous breach of food safety regulations a business must commit to be jumped on immediately.

My response was:

I coach little kids’ (ice) hockey in Brisbane.

For that voluntary pleasure, I had to complete 16 hours of certification training, in addition to the 40 hours of training I completed in Canada to coach a travel team.

To produce or serve food in Australia requires … nothing.

Restaurants and food service establishments are a significant source of the foodborne illness that strikes up to 20 per cent of citizens in so-called developed countries each and every year.

After helping develop and watching the mish-mash of federal, state and local approaches to restaurant inspection and disclosure in a number of western countries for the past 15 years, I can draw two broad conclusions:

  • Anyone who serves, prepares or handles food, in a restaurant, nursing home, day care center, supermarket or local market needs some basic food safety training; and,
  • the results of restaurant and other food service inspections must be made public.

There should be mandatory food handler training, for say, three hours, that could happen in school, on the job, whatever. But training is only a beginning. Just because you tell someone to wash the poop off their hands before they prepare salad for 100 people doesn’t mean it is going to happen; weekly outbreaks of hepatitis A confirm this. There are a number of additional carrots and sticks that can be used to create a culture that values microbiologically safe food and a work environment that rewards hygienic behavior. But mandating basic training is a start.

Next is to verify that training is being translated into safe food handling practices through inspection. And those inspection results should be publicly available.

A philosophy of transparency and openness underlies the efforts of many local health units across North America in seeking to make available the results of restaurant inspections. In the absence of regular media exposes, or a reality TV show where camera crews follow an inspector into a restaurant unannounced, how do consumers — diners — know which of their favorite restaurants are safe?

Cities, counties and states are using a blend of web sites, letter or numerical grades on doors, and providing disclosure upon request. In Denmark, smiley or sad faces are affixed to restaurant windows.

Publicly available grading systems rapidly communicate to diners the potential risk in dining at a particular establishment and restaurants given a lower grade may be more likely to comply with health regulations in the future to prevent lost business.

More importantly, such public displays of information help bolster overall awareness of food safety amongst staff and the public — people routinely talk about this stuff. The interested public can handle more, not less, information about food safety.

Even in New South Wales and Queensland, results are only posted voluntarily. 

So if an outlet sucks at food safety, they don’t have to tell anyone.

Toronto, Los Angeles and New York have had mandatory disclosure, on the doors for years.

Adelaide can figure it out.

And instead of waiting for politicians to take the lead, the best restaurants, those with nothing to hide and everything to be proud of, will go ahead and make their inspection scores available — today.

About time: Boston restaurants could face steep fine if they don’t post food safety

Matt Rocheleau of the Boston Globe reports that Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh is asking the City Council for approval to fine restaurants $300 per day if they fail to post their food safety inspection letter grades in their storefronts.

ny_rest_inspect_disclosureRestaurants and food trucks would have a year to comply after the launch of the letter-grade system being developed for restaurants citywide, though the grades would be available on the city’s website.

The city’s Inspectional Services Department has been developing the program. Officials there have said restaurants would receive either an A, B, or C grade.

The program would resemble rating systems that New York, Los Angeles, and other cities have been using since as early as the late 1990s. Locally, Newton launched a similar program in the fall that requires numerical ratings to be displayed inside restaurants.

Boston officials have previously told the Globe that letter grades will be issued to all of the city’s roughly 3,000 food establishments, including restaurants, food trucks, cafeterias, and other food vendors.

When an establishment gets a low grade, inspectors will return within 30 days to reinspect, city officials have said. If the violations are corrected, the city would bump up the grade accordingly. If the issues remain, the grade would stand until the next routine inspection, officials have said.

Restaurants would be subject to the $300 fines if they fail to post their letter grades “immediately after receipt, unobstructed, at eye-level, facing outward on an exterior-facing wall or window within five feet of the main entrance in the interior of the restaurant,” according to Walsh’s proposal to the council, which was previously reported on by the Universal Hub website.

The council is due to take up the matter at a meeting in City Hall on Wednesday.

The new rating system would not cost the city any extra money, city officials have said, because it would calculate grades based on the existing system used to inspect restaurants.