Nationwide since ’02, 8 patrons die, many sickened
J.J. Esquibel, the co-owner of Wings over Broadway, 5004 E. Broadway, wipes down tables with a sanitary disinfectant after each use.
Restaurateurs can’t keep dirty little secrets in the City of Angels.
That’s just how the Center for Science in the Public Interest thinks it should work for all U.S. restaurants, based on a recent study of inspection reports from 20 cities, including Tucson.
In Los Angeles County, restaurants are given grades of A, B, C, or a numerical rating for those scoring less than 70 out of 100 points on an unannounced inspection. The restaurants are then required to prominently display the grades and to provide detailed inspection reports to customers who request them.
Pima County restaurants are subject to a similar grading system, but they don’t have to display the inspection results.
“That’s something we currently don’t require that restaurants do, but it’s something that has been discussed,” said Sharon Browning, program manager for the county’s Consumer Health and Food Safety unit. “Citizens are asking for more and more information about their food, and I do believe that as we go forward, whatever we have done in the past will not be sufficient.”
The inspections are more than a bureaucratic headache. They can be a matter of life and death. Since 2002, across the nation at least eight people have died and thousands sickened after eating tainted food at a restaurant.
Los Angeles County adopted its system 10 years ago after an investigative report by a local television station on bad practices at area restaurants.
“After the report, the (county) Board of Supervisors decided it was really time to make substantial changes, and doing this was an absolute no-brainer,” said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director for public health and a health officer for L.A. County. “We wanted the restaurants to have the same incentives we did, which is to protect the public, and by giving grades and requiring them to display them, we aligned those incentives.”
In the report released last week, “Dirty Dining: Have Reservations? You Will Now,” researchers concluded that L.A. County’s adoption and proper use of the system led to “safer food facilities, reduced incidents of foodborne illness, improved information for consumers, and enthusiastic support for the grading program.”
One study found that the system contributed to a 20 percent decrease in food-borne, illness-related hospitalization in L.A. County.
Since the program’s inception in 1998, the average inspection score has risen more than 10 percent, and the average restaurant score has stayed above 90 percent (90 or better earns an “A”).
A 2001 survey of consumers revealed why restaurateurs now put so much effort into earning an “A.” Just 3 percent of respondents said they would eat at a “C” restaurant, and 25 percent said they’d eat at a “B” restaurant.
Browning said the Pima County Health Department encourages restaurants that perform well on inspections to post grades but doesn’t require displaying them. In essence, the lack of a visible inspection grade at a restaurant is an admission that it didn’t score well, she said.
“Honestly, if we had more dollars to invest, I would much prefer that we use them to further the recognition of performing restaurants. We’re using the carrot rather than the stick.” she said. “If I walk into a restaurant and don’t see the proof that they’re performing, they must not be making it.”
Browning said that when Pima County revamped its inspection process in 2002, a committee entertained the idea of adopting A, B, and C grades, but opted for “E” (Excellent), “G” (Good), “NI” (Needs Improvement), and “P” (Provisional License). A “P” rating, which results from five or more critical violations, means a restaurant is given a temporary license to serve food until it passes a follow-up inspection that restores its regular license.
“In a sense, our grading system is very similar to what the study recommended,” she said. “The committee just thought that the grades we adopted would be more relevant, because there is so much context to those letter grades from schools, and it was too stigmatizing and inflammatory.”
In addition to a similar grading system, Pima and Los Angeles counties share kudos from the center in that both provide classes in food safety for restaurant workers and public access to inspection reports. That can’t be said for all 20 cities in the study, said Sarah Klein, a staff lawyer with the Washington D.C.-based center’s Food Safety Program.
“In Pittsburgh and Washington D.C., we had to file Freedom of Information Act requests and wait several months to get the reports,” she said. “And Baltimore only sent 14 of the 30 reports we requested. They said they just weren’t staffed well enough to have the reports sorted in any meaningful way.”
Pima County’s Web site, www.pima.gov allows anyone to search the results of inspections by restaurant name, inspection grade, and other parameters. It also allows the access of all the inspection results in a restaurant’s history dating to inception of the system. The actual detailed sanitarian’s inspection reports are available on request.
While that level of access is commendable, it stops short of providing the market incentive that comes from requiring restaurants to display their grades in their front windows, Klein said.
“In cities where they don’t require the posting of grade cards, consumers aren’t really aware of anything short of the closure of the restaurant for health reasons, so it’s kind of the restaurateur’s hidden shame,” she said. “They can kind of say, ‘Well, maybe we’ll do better next time and maybe we won’t.’ I don’t think that should be a hidden shame.”
J.J. Esquibel’s Wings Over Broadway earned three consecutive “E” ratings, not easy for a locally owned restaurant that has just seven employees and inherited an old building fraught with potential sanitary and infrastructure problems.
“We had some challenges, but you have to meet the challenges. You can’t use an old building as an excuse,” said Esquibel, who co-owns the restaurant at 5004 E. Broadway and favors required posting. “For me, it’s something that would be good to have up there for the customer and the employees. For the employees, that grade is going to be a constant reminder of where they are, good or bad, and what they need to do.”
Jeff Wer, who owns one local restaurant – Shish Kebab House of Tucson, 5855 E. Broadway – and co-owns another – Mediterranean Garden, 7850 N. Oracle Road – said he supports the display requirement.
“I’m in favor of putting it right there in front where everybody can see it,” Wer said. “I lived in L.A. and I saw how they did things when they decided to clean it up. They didn’t mess around. They closed about 30 restaurants in about 30 days.”
A system that puts so much pressure on restaurants to perform well can obviously be subject to cheating and bribes of inspectors, Fielding said. L.A. County goes to great lengths to maintain the objectivity and integrity of inspections, he said.
“We have ethics training. We do statistical analysis of inspections to look at things. We rotate inspection assignments and areas. We also have unannounced inspections by supervisors the day after our inspectors go out,” Fielding said.
The system even provides a way for restaurants that get an embarrassing grade to rectify the situation. For a fee, a restaurant can apply to be regraded, and is then subject to two unannounced inspections that are compiled into a new grade, Fielding said.
Klein said the more information is made available to consumers about food safety in restaurants, the more likely consumers are to support another of the center’s recommendations: increased funding for health departments.
“Health departments are notoriously underfunded and understaffed,” she said. “That’s the real problem when you talk about the situation on a national level.”
Wings Over Broadway cook Marvin Francis washes his hands even though he wears gloves while handling chicken.
Clean restaurants or lazy inspectors?
The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s study of restaurant inspections in 20 U.S. cities found that eateries in Tucson and San Francisco had the fewest critical violations. Restaurants in Austin, Texas, and Boston had the most.
“You can take that to mean that you have the cleanest restaurants, or you can take that to mean that you have the most lenient inspectors,” said Sarah Klein, a staff lawyer with the center’s Food Safety program.
As with most scientific studies, the key to assessing the findings lies in assessing the sampling method.
“The sample size was small, and for the most part, the restaurants they chose to study here were ones that had pretty good control systems in place,” said Sharon Browning, program manager of Pima County’s Consumer Health and Food Safety unit.
Restaurants studied were Janos, Sullivan’s Steakhouse, The Ventana Room, Arizona Inn, Catalina Steakhouse, The Gold Room, Primo, Signature Grill, Anthony’s in the Catalinas, Olive Tree, elle, Wildflower, Olive Garden, Macayo’s, NoRTH, T.G.I. Friday’s, Terra Cotta, Bluefin Seafood Bistro, Miguel’s at La Posada, Acacia at St. Philips, McDonald’s, KFC, Boston Market, Nico’s Taco Shop, Wienerschnitzel, eegee’s, In-N-Out Burger, Taco Bell, Baggin’s Gourmet Sandwiches and Poco Loco Tacos.
Recommendations to minimize foodborne illness from restaurant food through the inspection process include:
• Pass laws requiring the posting of inspection records grade cards in the windows of all food establishments.
• To ensure the efficacy of a grade-card program, health departments should improve underlying inspection systems.
• State and local governments should adopt or incorporate the (most recent) 2005 Food Code. The laws governing restaurant inspections should be updated every two years to reflect these changing standards.
• FDA and the Conference for Food Protection should revise the Food Code to include the use of publicly posted inspection grade cards as part of the comprehensive inspection process.
• State and local governments should ensure that food safety and hygiene guidelines are available in appropriate languages and that food service workers are adequately trained.
Source: Center for Science in the Public Interest
Top 5 problems
The five most critical food safety problems in restaurants are:
• Holding temperatures: Proper temperature control prevents many types of pathogens from multiplying to levels that can cause foodborne illness. A recent Food and Drug Administration report found that almost 65 percent of U.S. restaurants studied were out of compliance with hot and cold storage recommendations of the Food Code.
• Hand washing: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently estimated that 20 percent of foodborne illnesses caused by bacteria are passed by an infected worker. Three pathogens come primarily from infected workers: hepatitis A virus, shigella, and staphylococcus aureus bacteria. All three can be prevented by proper hand washing.
• Improper cooking: Two of the most harmful bacteria linked to raw and undercooked meats – salmonella and E.coli – accounted for more than 20 percent of the reported restaurant-linked outbreaks from 1998 to 2005.
• Contaminated food contact surfaces: Recent FDA studies concluded that 56 percent of restaurants studied were not following appropriate guidelines for sanitizing equipment and food contact surfaces.
• Food from unsafe sources: The FDA found that 13 percent of full-service restaurants studied in 2004 were not complying with guidelines for receiving food from safe sources. Bacteria that exist in raw food can multiply and produce toxins if the food is improperly refrigerated during shipping and handling.
Source: Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, Center for Science in the Public Interest
Examples of dirty dining
Chi-Chi’s, hepatitis A. 2003. More than 700 people were sickened and four died after eating green onions imported from Mexico at this Pennsylvania restaurant.
Old South Restaurant, salmonella. 2003. More than 300 illnesses and one death were reported from undercooked turkey at this South Carolina restaurant.
El Azteca, Clostridium perfringens. 2001. Beef cooled too slowly sickened 15 and killed one at this Georgia restaurant.
Red Lobster, salmonella. 2002. One death led to an investigation that found 13 violations of personal hygiene among employees at this Florida outpost of the popular seafood chain.
Sizzler Steakhouse, E. coli 0157:H7. 2000. Fresh watermelon contaminated by raw ground beef was suspected as the cause of the death of a patron at this Wisconsin eatery, with dozens more sickened.
Carrabba’s Italian Grill, norovirus. 2006. At least 437 people fell ill in Michigan after a sick employee handled food.
Texas Roadhouse, norovirus. 2004. Poor hygiene was linked to more than 240 illnesses at this Colorado restaurant.
Golden Corral, salmonella. 2003. One person died and at least 23 others were sickened in Georgia. Investigations showed a likelihood that an employee was infected with salmonella and passed it to patrons through poor hygiene and improper food handling. Bacteria were found in the floor drain of the restaurant.
Chili’s Restaurant, salmonella. 2003. More than 160 people were sickened at a Chili’s in Illinois. Inspectors cited a failure to wash hands, and noted that a broken water heater in the restaurant made it impossible to effectively clean and sanitize dirty dishes.
Blimpie’s, norovirus. 2005. An unsanitized sink used for hand and lettuce washing was thought to be the culprit in an outbreak that sickened 125 people in Michigan.
Source: Center for Science in the Public Interest
Read the report
Dirty Dining: Have reservations?