Food safety is a mixture of carrots and sticks, but is the stick alone cleaning up Denver restaurants?
The Denver Post reports that food-safety violations at Denver restaurants have dropped sharply, and fines have soared under a controversial change in the way Denver regulates its dining establishments.
The number of critical violations that could lead to food poisoning has fallen 43 percent since the policy was implemented last year.
Restaurant owners are hopping mad over the fines they're paying, even as Denver regulators laud the policy's effectiveness.
"It looks like it's working," said Doug Linkhart, manager of the Denver Department of Environmental Health. "We are very excited about that trend."
Since the new system took effect Jan. 1, 2011, critical violations have dropped from a peak of 3,267 in the second quarter of 2011 to 1,847 in the second quarter of 2012. Expressed in a different measure, the number of critical violations per inspection has fallen from 1.7 to 1.
However, the restaurant industry says the switch is a financial burden on owners and is unfairly enforced.
Owners initially supported the shift to higher fines in place of the unpopular previous policy that required restaurants to post notices of critical violations. Now their tone has changed after seeing that fine collections soared from $118,995 in 2010 to $731,900 in 2011.
"We don't agree with the penalty system anymore," said Pete Meersman, president and chief executive of the Colorado Restaurant Association. "The fines are too high and too frequent, and there is rapidly growing animosity between restaurant operators and health inspectors."
Until last year, the health department used a system in which restaurants with a pattern of critical violations were required to post a notice of the violations for 30 days. Critical violations include leaving foods at temperatures that promote bacterial growth or poor hygienic practices by workers.
Restaurateurs hated the posting procedure because in most cases the violations were corrected before the notices were posted. The result was that patrons would be scared away by problems that no longer existed, industry officials said.
Restaurants called for a change. They negotiated for 18 months with Denver officials, eventually agreeing to the new system that allows the city to impose a fine of $250 if the same critical violation is found twice in a 12-month period. The fine rises to $500 for third or subsequent violations. Unchanged is the health department's ability to issue a $2,000 fine or close an establishment for an imminent public health risk.