Online Restaurant Inspection Reports Are Cool, But Fragmented Responsibility for Restaurant Inspections Remains a Problem

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I’ve written a ton about the pressing need for regional public health departments over on the other blog, focusing on activists’ multi-year push to create a Bi-County Public Health Department in the Lehigh Valley metro area.

Basically, the problem advocates were trying to solve is that there is very little going on in terms of population-level public health services at the local level. Some towns have a health department, some don’t, but that’s not sufficient to address the kinds of public health problems that can come up, since those problems are regional by nature:

The Lehigh Valley has no public health infrastructure. Only Bethlehem and Allentown have public health departments. The other municipalities rely on the state to provide bare bones services like restaurant inspections, but those inspectors are thin on the ground.

So lots of things that would improve health outcomes for residents are simply not getting done, and council evidently does not have a plan to get them done.

There’s no plan to deal with communicable diseases. There’s no plan to deal with food-borne illness.

There’s no plan to monitor water and air quality, even though there are two unregulated coal ash basins in Northampton County. And there’s no plan to coordinate vaccinations in the event of an outbreak.

The LV Bi-County Health Department was going to set an example for the rest of the state, but ultimately the proposal got tabled due to parochial concerns and then the anti-government Republican waves in the 2009 and 2011 municipal elections. But these problems are still quite real all over the state, and nobody is doing anything about it.

Even the recent state efforts to put all the restaurant inspection reports online amounts to layering good stuff on top of crap:

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture is working on a system to aggregate thousands of restaurant inspection reports each month from counties and municipalities and post them on its website.

The department itself conducts about 40,000 inspections of restaurants in communities that do not have their own inspection programs. Those reports are already available online.

But about 60,000 other restaurant inspections each year are handled locally, and online access varies from agency to agency. So the agriculture department is aiming to put all of them on the website, too, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

The actual problem is that the decision of whether or not to have a public health department is left up to individual towns, and there are 2562 different municipalities in PA. Some towns do it, some towns don’t. Some counties do it, some counties don’t.

But if you believe that population-level public health services work, and you should, it follows that regions are the correct level for those issues to be addressed at. The ebola virus doesn’t care about your little municipal boundaries.

It’s not enough for the state to leave restaurant inspections and vaccines and the rest up to local governments, and then try to fill in the enormous gaps with state inspectors. State law needs to require all counties to provide these services and pay for them with state tax dollars, just like with criminal justice services.

This entry was posted in Budget, Health.

2 Responses to Online Restaurant Inspection Reports Are Cool, But Fragmented Responsibility for Restaurant Inspections Remains a Problem

  1. PA is not the worst system out there… they do post data online, and can be transparent, is the system perfect no, is any system perfect, no.

    I have had the honor of reviewing roughly 3200+ of the jurisdictions inspection programs in the United States, all 54 jurisdictions in Canada and 396 jurisdictions in the United Kingdom. The issue is not that the inspection is left to the local, state, or even federal agencies. The issue is the local variants and policies and procedures in the data are just different for each jurisdiction. Currently no one is properly managing this structured and unstructured data. The issue can be solved with data normalization and standardization best practices, and using current Web 2.0 methodologies and technologies. Which most governments don’t have the money or the expertise to run in house in a cost effective manner.

    This is a big issue…
    1 in 6 Americans are affected by food borne illness annually
    48 million people in the US
    3.8 million doctor visits
    128,000 hospitalization
    3,000 deaths

    The source of 52% of all sporadic and confirmed food borne illnesses outbreaks is caused by restaurants. Followed by 18% at home, 4% at schools, 4% unknown, 22% other (farm and processing of food).

    This only affects the US Economy by $77.7 billion annually.

    The Restaurant industry worries about the interpretation between various inspectors… taxes, fees, and sometime fines charged to the establishment as the burden. With 3 types of restaurateurs the clean, the dirty, and the ones that don’t care.

    The Restaurant Associations for the most part worry about how this will hurt restaurant sales and be a burden to restaurants. As they lobby for the restaurant industry. The facts are a clean kitchen makes more money. NYC, LA, RI, NC, SC, proves that. If they looked at inspection data as a lead source to recruit more Serv Safe certifications, if they know a restaurant that doesn’t have a Certified Manager they can use that for marketing. National Restaurant Association owns Serv Safe, and they just hit 5 million certifications earlier this year.

    Government Agencies are slow to change, and want to protect their budgets and policies.
    The cost of most outside contractors are very expensive and disrupt the health departments policies and procedures, more then they fix the system.

    I understand this issue, from the consumer, restaurant industry, and inspector point of view.

    Full Disclosure, I’m a Classically trained Chef turned Entrepreneur, I own a company that aggregates, enhances and distributes restaurant health department inspection scores across US, Canada, & the UK in an easy to read and search format for clients and consumers. I would be happy to share any documentation of facts.

    • Jon says:

      I don’t think anybody’s arguing that the system could be perfect. I’m arguing that it could be made better if it wasn’t left up to individual local governments whether to do restaurant inspections or not.