Restaurant inspection results can be tough for public to view

By Mark Fisher, Staff Writer

Consumers who want to quickly check out how a local restaurant fared on its recent sanitation and food-handling inspections either have plenty of information at their fingertips or are out of luck, depending on where in the Miami Valley they live.

But that may be changing soon.

Montgomery County is the only county in the area that posts its restaurant-inspection reports online, making the records accessible to computer or smartphone/tablet users 24 hours a day.

One large Ohio city goes even further: the Columbus Health Department employs a color-coded placard system (green, yellow, red and white) that restaurants must place near their front door. Other cities and some states employ a letter-grade system that consumers embrace enthusiastically — and which many restaurant owners complain about bitterly.

In all of the counties surrounding Montgomery County, diners have access to restaurant inspection reports, which are public records under Ohio law. But that access is not necessarily convenient.

Residents of Greene, Clark, Miami, Warren and Butler counties can stop by their local health department’s offices and ask to review the files that contain restaurant inspections, but they must go during regular business hours. Butler County’s health department will drop a copy of an individual restaurant’s inspection into the mail upon request; Miami County will email a copy of an inspection report upon request. Health officials in those counties surrounding Montgomery County say they’d like to post inspections online, but are limited by money and technology issues.

Montgomery County health officials said they could not calculate the cost of adding online access to restaurant inspections, because it occurred two years ago as part of a total overhaul of the health department’s website that also incorporated online access to other inspections such as hotel-motel and campground facilities.

The inspections of two restaurants in side-by-side counties illustrate the difference in the level of access.

Between May and October of 2011, the Greene County Combined Health District performed 13 inspections of the now-defunct Happy Buffet — it later changed its name to Hibachi Buffet before closing seven months ago — at 2750 N. Fairfield Road near the Mall at Fairfield Commons. In total, inspectors found more than 120 violations of the Ohio Food Code, including cross-contamination between raw meats and ready-to-eat foods, dirty food-contact surfaces, perishable foods held at improper temperatures, and potentially unsafe thawing and reheating methods. In one instance, an inspector observed juice from raw chicken had soaked through a box containing cantaloupes. The inspector ordered the fruit discarded.

But the only direct access that potential diners had, and would still have today, to the restaurant’s inspection reports would require a drive to the offices of the Greene County health department offices in north Xenia, where a consumer could request to examine the records and make copies at 6 cents a page.

On Sept. 4 of this year, a Montgomery County restaurant inspector reported 29 violations at Bolts Sports Cafe at 910 S. Main St. in Englewood. The number of violations “is unusual,” said Alan Pierce, supervisor of the Dayton and Montgomery County health department’s bureau of general services that includes restaurant inspections. “We wouldn’t expect to see more than one or two of these a year” with a similar number of violations, Pierce said.

The majority of the violations related to shortcomings found in the physical facilities and plumbing, although five violations involved food handling procedures such as food that had not been date-marked, food that had not been discarded by its date mark, and improper reheating of cooled foods.

Bolts owner Jack Maio said last week that a “perfect storm” of circumstances led to the violations found in the Sept. 4 inspection: He took a day off that day, his kitchen manager had departed the previous week, and heavy rains a few days earlier had caused a leak and some water damage.

“A lot of things that are normally taken care of were not done,” Maio said.

Maio said Bolts does not serve food that is outdated and has received no customer complaints about food quality. Maio and the sports bar’s manager, Penny Haworth, said employees and a plumbing contractor worked diligently to correct the violations prior to a re-inspection by Montgomery County sanitarian.

That re-inspection was conducted Friday. It showed a reduced number of violations, 11, that included two food-handling issues: a pan of cabbage rolls were discarded after an inspector found they were not cooled properly, and several items — including plastic bags of sliced turkey, sliced ham and salami — were ordered to be thrown away they did not have a discard date written on the packages as required by Ohio’s food code. “A re-inspection will be conducted at a later date to monitor compliance,” the health department’s sanitarian wrote. Ultimately, restaurants that don’t comply with the state’s food code can have their license to operate suspended or revoked.

In contrast to the Greene County case, consumers can read the full inspection reports for Bolts or any other Montgomery County restaurant 24 hours a day from any device with online access. The reports are posted within a couple of working days of the inspections. The report on Friday’s re-inspection of Bolts was posted on the health department’s website shortly after noon on Monday.

Along with Cuyahoga and Hamilton counties and Columbus and Worthington city health departments, Montgomery County is one of only five health departments in the state to post part or all of their restaurant inspections online. But an initiative underway in the Ohio Department of Health is expected to greatly expand that number.

The initiative will allow county and city health departments to use newly created software that will pave the way for far greater, and more consistent, online access of restaurant reports, perhaps within two years, state health department officials said. While the statewide Environmental Health Data System Integration initiative may make restaurant inspections reports more convenient to view on a computer screen, it may not lead to any type of rating system such as the one implemented in Columbus and in some cities and states outside Ohio.

“A rating system or color-coded system is not the intention or purpose” of the data-system project, Ohio Department of Health spokeswoman Tessie Pollock said.

But diners in cities that have such ratings systems certainly like the idea of consumer-friendly restaurant ratings. In March 2012, 19 months after the city of New York adopted a system of assigning letter grades to evaluate restaurants for food safety, 82 percent of residents said they supported the idea compared with 14 percent who did not, according to a Quinnipiac University poll. And two-thirds of the survey respondents said they considered letter grades when they decided where to eat, while 28 percent did not, according to the New York Times.

The Columbus color-coded system took effect five years ago. It was patterned after a ratings system in Toronto, and was an immediate hit with Columbus residents, said Keith Krinn, director of environmental health for the Columbus health department.

“Our public thinks it is a smashing success,” Krinn said. “It allows people to make informed decisions. It’s all about transparency.”

Columbus Health Department spokesman Jose Rodriguez said the color-coded placards have become “a motivating factor” for restaurant owners who want no part of any color aside from green. “When a restaurant falls into enforcement, they want to get that yellow card off the door as quickly as possible,” Rodriguez said — and that in turn means correcting their sanitation and food-handling shortcomings as quickly as possible.

Despite its popularity with consumers, the Columbus color-coded system has not been copied by any other city health department outside of Franklin County, although Krinn said a couple of Ohio cities that he declined to name have made inquiries and are looking into it. County or combined health districts that are made up of multiple townships, villages and cities would find it virtually impossible to implement such a system under current state law, which contains no provisions for such a ratings system, Montgomery and Franklin County health officials said.

Montgomery County’s Pierce said color-coded and letter-grade ratings systems are flawed because they’re based on a single snapshot taken of a restaurant’s practices that may be misleading, out of date — or both. And coming up with a fair and consistent “grading scale” for what constitutes a score, letter grade or color-coded rating would require changes in state law, Pierce said.

The idea of a statewide rating system “has been batted around” on the state level several years ago, but there has been no recent discussion, according to Pierce, who serves on a statewide advisory committee that periodically reviews the Ohio Uniform Food Safety Code. “The overriding thought was it would be more misleading than worthwhile,” Pierce said.

Starting in 2010, Montgomery County health officials began posting a full copy of each inspection of the 2,000 restaurants in the county on the health department’s website, and they will keep previous inspection reports available so that consumers can obtain a fuller, more complete picture of a restaurant’s performance over time. But posting the full reports also means consumers also will encounter some technical terms and numerical designations that relate to the sections of state law governing restaurant inspections, making some portions of the reports difficult to comprehend.

Pierce said he encourages his agency’s sanitarians to simplify portions of their report as much as possible, “although we can’t get around some of the terms that are in the Ohio Revised Code.” The department includes a user’s guide of sorts on its inspections web site to help consumers understand the reports.

Franklin County’s health department, which handles all restaurant inspections outside Columbus and Worthington in the county, is exploring a compromise of sorts that does not employ a ratings system but which will summarize a restaurant’s performance over several inspections over multiple years, according to Franklin County Health Commissioner Susan Tilgner. Such a system will spotlight a restaurant’s consistency over time rather than a single snapshot in complying with food-handling laws, Tilgner said.

“We’re looking to roll that out by March 1,” the health commissioner said.

• To access inspection reports for Montgomery County restaurants and other food-service operators, go to the Public Health – Dayton & Montgomery County web site The Dayton Daily News publishes summaries of select restaurant inspections every week in the Neighbors section.

Source: Dayton Daily News

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