SOUTH DAKOTA: Restaurant inspection records easily accessed in other cities
Posted: November 22nd, 2011 - 9:12am
Source: Rapid City Journal
Once a week, the Siouxland Environmental Health Department in Sioux Falls posts its newest batch of inspection scores online.
Food safety scores for everything from fast-food chains to Chinese restaurants to deli counters to five-star bistros are available at a click of a button, along with descriptions of each violation and how it affects public health.
"People really like it," said LuAnn Ford, consumer protection public health manager.
The city of Sioux Falls, which has a contract with the state Department of Health to conduct restaurant inspections within city limits, has been posting its results to the Web since 2006.
Many communities nationwide also taken the digital leap, a fact that South Dakota officials used to justify a promised transition from paper to online records later this year.
"It is being done in other jurisdictions," said Doneen Hollingsworth, who has been secretary of South Dakota's health department since 1995. "A lot of restaurants have presence in more than one state. This isn't new."
Elsewhere, accessibility goes even further, with health departments requiring restaurants to display the entirety of their most recent inspection report in plain view of the public. In North Carolina, establishments must post a letter grade that corresponds to their inspection score and likewise in New York City, where restaurant owners face fines of up to $1,000 for refusing to display their grades.
Public health officials agree that it is not just the public at large that benefits from having the results of restaurant inspections readily available.
"The facilities are more aware of their scores and how that score can impact their business," Ford said. "It's actually an asset for all of us, not just the public who's out there looking at the score."
In Fort Collins, Colo., it took two local newspapers requesting weekly reports on restaurant inspections to get Larimer County to start posting its reports online, something they've now been doing since 1999, said Jim Devore, an environmental health specialist with Larimer County Health & Environment.
"We were getting a lot of calls not only from newspaper reporters but also from the public when they saw the inspection information printed in the paper," Devore said. "What we ended up finding is the public wants to get an idea, wants to get that inspection information."
In Taney County, Missouri, home to the tourist attractions of Branson, particular effort is made to celebrate those establishments that score well on their inspections.
The first thing people see when accessing the county's online restaurant inspection database is "The A-List," an aggregate of all restaurants that passed their inspections in the past two weeks. Laura Jahn, environmental health division supervisor for the Taney County Health Department, said that was a conscious decision made by county health officials last year.
"Most people who look at restaurant inspections are looking for the worst, what's the grossest, but we didn't want to do that," Jahn said. "We wanted to focus on the positive."
Being on the "A-List" has also become a source of pride for restaurant owners, many of whom were wary when the county began posting restaurant scores online in 2009. In addition, the county compiled a "Super A-List" at the end of 2010 to recognize the establishments that had passed every inspection on the first try that year.
But from a public health perspective, Jahn said one of the biggest impacts of the program has been a notable decrease over the last year in the number of site visits her inspectors have had to do to gain compliance. The county also implemented a $50 revisit fee earlier this year.