Philadelphia: Post inspections in restaurant windows

Following up on UK calls for mandatory posting of inspection grades in restaurants, letter writer Joseph Mcaffrey tells Philly.com he recently walked by a barf.o.meter.dec.12restaurant near Philadelphia City Hall that had 19 illness-risk and retail violations, yet it was doing a booming lunch business.

Food poisoning is horrendous to recover from, and I urge the Inquirer to continue publishing restaurant inspection reports. But City Council must do more to protect the public. Council and Mayor Kenney should mandate the placement of the most recent food-inspection reports in all restaurants’ front windows.

With the coming Democratic National Convention, Philadelphia cannot risk the bad press involved in food poisoning and other adverse health events.

Fancy food possibly ain’t safe food: Pennsylvania Whole Foods edition

Sam Wood of Philly.com writes that shoppers once chose supermarkets for convenience, cost, customer service and quick checkouts.

whole.foodsBut a recent study found 83 percent of consumers pick only retail outlets that look clean to them, according to supermarket guru Phil Lempert. A full third of the people he surveyed have turned around and fled stores that seemed less than pristine.

The Inquirer, as part of its Clean Plates project, examined two years of health department reports for large grocers in Philadelphia and Bucks County.

And though each inspection is said to be only “a snapshot in time,” some chains are more photogenic than others.

At the top of the list for cleanliness were Wegman’s and Aldi, each with near immaculate records and very few violations per inspection.

At the bottom were Shop N Bag, Fresh Grocer, and, perhaps surprisingly given its reputation for high prices, Whole Foods. Each of the chains had at least four times as many infractions (noted per inspection) as Wegman’s.

To determine the rankings, we added up the number of infractions found by the health departments and divided that by the number of inspections.

Wegman’s averaged 1.8 violations per inspection while Shop N Bag topped out at 10.

In general, most violations were corrected on the spot before the inspector left the store and the transgressions were minor, ranging from insufficient hot water to missing thermometers in refrigerated cases. Evidence of mice, both dead and alive, was also a commonly cited problem.

At Whole Foods in the city’s Fairmount section, inspectors in January found mouse droppings throughout the rear storage area. Food samples were being offered without the protection of a sneeze guard covering the food, as required. At the South Street branch last week several food items were found to be improperly refrigerated and a dead mouse was discovered in a trap in a bakery cabinet. Two more expired rodents were found in snap traps there in late November.

Mouse-droppings-in-airing-cupboardA spokeswoman said mice were more likely to be attracted to Whole Foods because the markets carry more prepared foods and fresh perishable items than others. Just as customers are drawn to those specialty items, mice are lured by the increased trash and compost created as a byproduct.

“Whenever issues are discovered, like those in Philadelphia, we take immediate action to fix the situation and provide our customers with the service and quality they expect,” said Whole Foods spokeswoman Robin Rehfield Kelly.

“Making food safe costs money,” said Donald W. Schaffner, food safety expert and a professor of microbiology at Rutgers University. “If you’re an upscale chain, you know your customers demand it. It comes through diligence and staffing.”

Schaffner said he wasn’t surprised that Wegman’s came out on top or that the others didn’t do as well.

Blaine Forkell, senior vice president of Wegman’s Pennsylvania division, said each store has a dedicated food safety coordinator and every employee, including the cashiers, receives at least an hour of food safety training.

“We don’t put profit ahead of food safety and we ask our employees to make it personal,” Marra said. “It’s an everyday way of doing business. It’s an everyday expectation from our stores.”

Philly restaurant ordered shut for shit – but keeps serving

McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood and Steaks, a favorite lunch destination of Center City bankers and Philadelphia city officials, was issued an order to cease and desist operations this week after an inspector discovered “wastewater backing up into the establishment” and “nonpotable water” leaking from the kitchen ceiling.

McCormick & Schmick'sThough the restaurant managers agreed to immediately shut down on Wednesday until repairs were complete, business went on as usual.

“We never closed,” said a floor manager who answered the phone on Thursday. She declined to provide her name.

Asked why the restaurant had continued to operate without interruption, a corporate official for the restaurant chain issued a statement.

“We acted swiftly to resolve the situation, and as a result were able to remain open,” said Howard Cole, senior vice president and chief operating officer of McCormick & Schmick’s. “The location has passed all compliance inspections. It is important to us at McCormick & Schmick’s that food safety measures are instituted and followed.”

In his report, health sanitarian Terrance Carter said there was “a foul odor in the establishment” during the Wednesday inspection.

When Carter asked about the wastewater standing in the sinks and on the floor, the person in charge explained that a plumber had been called “several days” before, but no one had shown up. Carter advised the restaurant to call again immediately, according to the report.

Jim Chan, the recently retired manager of Toronto’s DineSafe program, reviewed the inspection document at the request of the Inquirer.

“Wow, what a bad report!” said Chan. “It shows that they did not check and correct food safety and sanitation issues until the inspection. They sat and waited until being told to get things done.”

jim.chanChan said he was disturbed at the mention of the foul odor.

“When you say that, you’re saying there’s a possibility of sewage,” he said. “If it’s just water backing up, you don’t smell a foul odor.”

In most North American cities, an order to cease and desist requires management to shut down the business promptly and tell all patrons to leave, Chan said.

A spokesman for the Philadelphia health department was unable to explain why McCormick & Schmick’s had remained open.

For years in Philadelphia, restaurants have been able to ignore cease and desist orders. In mid-February, the city announced it had given health inspectors the power to shut down an eatery without calling in the department of Licenses & Inspections.

Those powers will go into effect sometime this month.

I don’t have to close my dirty restaurant I’ll just ignore you: Philadelphia health department finally gets power to shut dirty eateries

Sam Wood of Philly.com writes that for years, whenever the Philadelphia health department discovered a restaurant with hygiene problems that posed a public threat, it has ordered the business to shut down and clean up.

rockey.meat.feb.16And for years, restaurants have been able to ignore those cease-and-desist orders.

That’s set to change in March.

An agreement signed by the health agency and the Department of Licenses & Inspections will give health inspectors the power to shut down problem eateries, said Palak Raval-Nelson, director of Environmental Health Services.

“For so long, we’ve only had a water gun to squirt, and now we’re getting an Uzi,” said Raval-Nelson.

As the policy stands now, if inspectors find inadequate refrigeration, an infestation of mice, or spilled sewage, they can do little more than ask L&I to step in.

“Our authority has been limited to asking for a voluntary closure,” Raval-Nelson said.

Nine times out of 10, proprietors agreed to close, she said. Those who didn’t were referred to L&I.

Under the new agreement, in the works since July 2015, health officials can act on their own, said Chief Deputy City Solicitor Andrew Ross.

“It makes the process more efficient,” Ross said. “We’re not growing any new teeth, we’re just moving them from one mouth to the other.”

The discovery of vermin will trigger an automatic 48-hour closure, Raval-Nelson said.

“It’s very difficult to get rid of vermin in less time,” she said. “You can’t go running around stomping on the mice and roaches.”

Though Philadelphia has resisted issuing letter grades for restaurant sanitation, it has made health reports public through the city’s website. (They are compiled at philly.com/cleanplates.) Public attention to the issue was heightened early last year when about 100 lawyers and students were sickened after eating at Joy Tsin Lau, a frequently cited restaurant in Chinatown.

‘Never made anyone sick’ Philly edition, as inspectors crack down

Sam Wood writes for Philly.com: The health department last week sharply rebuked several well-known Philadelphia eateries  — and ordered four to temporarily close — following routine and unannounced inspections.

midtown11The Midtown II diner, Federal Donuts, Dirty Franks, Milkboy, and Godiva Chocolatier each received stinging assessments from health inspectors. Some eatery managers and owners groused that the inspectors have become unnecessarily tough.

“I think it’s all baloney,” said Gus Hionas, owner of the Midtown II at 122 S. 11th Street in Center City. “This place has been open 24 hours a day for 43 years. I’ve never poisoned anyone or made anyone sick. This is a disgrace what they’re doing.”

Midtown II was cited Dec. 17 for a total of 32 violations, 18 of which were noted as serious risk factors. Some food safety professionals consider having two violations as being too many. At Midtown II, serious infractions included an employee touching ready to eat food with her bare hands, encrusted food debris on kitchen equipment, severely dented canned items and improperly stored food that was being held in “danger zone” temperatures prone to breeding toxic bacteria.

“I know what needs to be done and what’s not to be done,” Hionas said after a reporter read him the list of violations. “It’s ridiculous. Most of what they say makes no sense.”

Federal Donuts, the celebrated mecca of deep-fried joy at 16th and Sansom Streets, was dinged Dec. 17 for 12 infractions. Five of the violations are technically considered serious risk factors, but most diners would question the seriousness of an employee leaving a cup on a counter or an employee “improperly drinking” from a water bottle actually could be.

Steve Cook, co-owner of the five-restaurant chicken and donut empire, said inspectors seemed to be under pressure from health department superiors to come down harder on restauranteurs.

“Since the Joy Tsin Lau incident they’ve decided to really get tough,” Cook said, referring to the episode early this year where 100 lawyers and law students were sickened following a banquet at a Chinatown restaurant. “We’re not perfect, but why are they giving us such a hard time?

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/Philly.com 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: philly.com/cleanplates.

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.

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.

Flying+Pig+Recreates+Pink+Floyd+Album+Cover+WPqoHUP18F9lPhilly.com 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.

 

Philadelphia: Ingredients not on menu

The Philadelphia Inquirer continues its efforts to improve restaurant inspection disclosure in the City of Brotherly Love.

smiley.faces.denmark.rest.inspectionThe 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 Philly.com 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.

qr.code.rest.inspection.gradeA health department spokesman told Philly.com 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 (www.phila.gov/health/foodprotection/FoodSafetyReports.html) 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 Philly.com.

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 Philly.com 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, Philly.com 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 (phila.gov/health/foodprotection) 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.

 

Source safe food: Cook, clean, chill separate doesn’t cut it

In related things Philly, Don Sapatkin writes that back in 2002, with at least 85 people sickened by Salmonella, Bucks County health inspectors discovered that kitchen workers at a Lone Star Steakhouse on Route 1 were washing tomatoes and raw chicken in the same sink. They shut the place down until an additional sink could be installed to prevent cross-contamination.

philadelphia.food“We thought we had it nailed,” recalled Bill Roth, who oversees food safety for the county health department.

Not exactly. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed victims’ stool samples, Roth recalled, they noticed something completely different: The same strain of Salmonella had been found elsewhere. Connecting the dots, federal investigators traced the outbreak to contaminated tomatoes from a Virginia farm that were making gastrointestinal life very unpleasant for hundreds of people in 26 states.

The missing-sink violations cited by inspectors at the local steakhouse had nothing to do with it.

The case illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of restaurant inspections. On the one hand, they catch only a tiny percentage of potential problems, and only on the day that inspectors visit. On the other hand, they keep restaurateurs on their toes – using the same sink to rinse raw produce and uncooked poultry is a recipe for diarrhea, even if it wasn’t the cause that time.

“Put it this way,” said David Damsker, director of the Bucks County Health Department. “If you leave some children alone, they will be responsible. Some other children, take away parental supervision . . . and some places would be incredibly horrendous.”

Bucks provides restaurants with a lot of supervision. Its inspectors automatically visit the vast majority of the county’s 2,600 food establishments every six months – twice as often as routine inspections are performed in Philadelphia and every other county in the region except Montgomery (also twice a year).

Repeat inspections to follow up on violations are scheduled within 10 days, Bucks County officials said, compared with 30 in the city.

Yet Bucks finds fewer violations. And fewer violations mean fewer repeat visits – every inspection is a surprise – to follow up on the routine inspection.

Inspectors there recorded an average 1.1 serious violations per visit in 2014 compared with 1.6 for Philadelphia, according to an Inquirer analysis of inspection reports. The disparity was greater for all violations combined: 3.2 per inspection in Bucks vs. 6.0 in Philadelphia.

Whether the lower number of violations in the county means Bucks restaurants are cleaner is unclear. Philadelphia may simply have a higher proportion of full-service restaurants, which do more complex food preparation than convenience stores or other food establishments. That means more can go wrong, and can be spotted by inspectors.

But food safety officials in Bucks County speculated that their policy of routine inspections twice a year – a goal that most localities don’t have the resources to meet – are responsible for the difference.

“We go more for education than for enforcement,” Damsker said. More-frequent routine visits give kitchen workers a better understanding of food-safety issues, he said.

The emphasis on education has gained traction nationwide over the past decade. Throughout the region, most jurisdictions, including Philadelphia, now perform what are known as “risk-based inspections.”

They put a higher priority on violations that are known to increase the risk of foodborne illness than on cosmetic issues such as missing ceiling tiles. One of the highest priorities – and among the most common violations – is having an employee present at all times who is trained to recognize problems such as a refrigerator that isn’t quite cold enough to kill harmful bacteria.