November 20, 2004
In Pennsylvania, the state releases reports of restaurant inspections when no violation is found but does not disclose those in which serious violations have been discovered.
All inspection records of Pennsylvania restaurants should be available to the public, as they are in New York and New Jersey and some other states. Some states go further: In Tennessee, the state puts restaurant inspection scores on the Internet. In California, inspection reports are posted on the outside of restaurants.
In Pennsylvania, however, secrecy prevails.
Bobby McLean, director of food safety for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, said the agency can legally withhold the records, because the state’s open records law exempts records related to ongoing agency investigations.
The same argument is used by Borough of Chambersburg officials, when asked by Public Opinion about records of local restaurant inspections.
But as Teri Henning, an attorney for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, explains, such secrecy makes little sense from an investigative standpoint because the records are given to restaurant operators.
Two investigative reports by “Dateline” indicate there is reason to be concerned about food safety at restaurants.
The NBC newsmagazine show examined 1,000 inspection reports in 38 states. At the top 10 fast-food restaurants in the nation, 60% had critical violations, according to “Dateline.” The violations included things like handling ready-to-eat food with bare hands or unwashed hands, undercooked meat, improper food holding temperatures and sick employees preparing food. (For more information, and to find out how the top 10 ranked, see www.dateline.msnbc.com and click on “Dirty Restaurants” at the lower right of the screen.)
Then last month, “Dateline” followed up with a report on the top 10 family restaurant chains in the nation, again examining 1,000 reports. “Dateline” found that 82% had violations. Some of the more common violations were employees with unwashed hands and food not being kept warm enough.
Given what we know about Pennsylvania’s openness, it’s unlikely that restaurants in the Keystone State were included in the “Dateline” study.
However, two high-profile outbreaks show there is reason to be concerned here as well.
A hepatitis A outbreak was associated with a western Pennsylvania Chi-Chi’s restaurant last year, killing three, and 400 cases of salmonellosis were traced to Sheetz stores, including Franklin County, this year.
Both chains acted quickly to minimize safety risks to the public.
Right from the get-go, for example, Sheetz pulled all tomatoes and lettuce in its 300-plus stores in six states when the salmonella cases were first reported in western Pennsylvania.
Similarly, Chi-Chi’s pulled green onions from its restaurants after the unions were determined to be the cause of the hepatitis outbreak.
Some believe that as long as violations are corrected quickly, the system is working. However, it stands to reason that public scrutiny would help to encourage restaurant owners to pay closer attention to cleanliness and food handling by employees. That would result in improved food safety and fewer illnesses.
David Finch, assistant borough manager in Chambersburg, isn’t convinced it would, however.
“The restaurant owner should be worried enough about the health inspector. I don’t know if there’s any additional benefit to it being public. Public exposure could be damaging to somebody’s business even after they’ve solved the problem,” Finch said.
But if inspection results were made public, at least diners would be able to make more informed choices. Does a particular restaurant have a history of violations while another scores much better? We don’t know in Pennsylvania.
Nobody wants to get sick, so it’s not surprising that diners would like to know more than they do now. When Public Opinion asked its online readers whether a health inspector’s findings at restaurants should be public, a resounding 92.5% of the 295 readers who responded said yes.
When it comes to public safety, information should be shared.