Philadelphia Metropolis

Metropolis Report


Before You Go Out to Eat, Read This

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When it comes to safe food, officials at the city's Health Department say they have Philadelphia's 12,000 food establishments covered. The department has 35 inspectors who annually are tasked with inspecting city food establishments to be sure they meet the health code when it comes to proper handling, storage and preparation of food.

In February, 2009 Health Department officials introduced a new "risk-based" program that was supposed to fine tune the inspection process - doing more inspections of establishments that that serve raw food, such as sushi, or provide food to at-risk patrons, such as hospitals.

Palak Raval-Nelson, director of environmental health in the city's Public Health Department, said the new system and the addition of 15 inspectors would allow for better and more frequent inspections to guard against food contamination and the spread of food-borne diseases.

"We are getting as many inspections done as we can," she said during a recent interview. "Because of the risk-based process, the inspection frequency changes based on the nature of the establishment.

An examination by Metropolis, though, found serious gaps in what the Health Department says and what it does.

The public records of inspections appear to be incomplete. Relevant information - including restaurants that were fined or closed - is not available.

Here are some specifics:

Inspections: While the department says it inspects each food establishment in the city at least once a year, there are only 7,888 listed on the only official public source, a database of city Health Department food inspections maintained by the state Department of Agriculture. It dates back to February, 2009.

Compliance: That same public database also shows that of the 7,888 Philadelphia food establishments listed as of last week 3,291 were out of compliance - they have not corrected the violations listed, sometimes despite repeated inspections. This amounts to an out-of-compliance rate of 42 percent of the places listed.  (Most food establishments are restaurants, but they also include school and institutional cafeterias, donut shops, supermarkets and others than sell prepared take-out food.)

Fines: Officials said establishments can face fine if they must be re-inspected more than twice. Yet, there are no fines listed on the inspection reports and city officials said they do not keep track of the money paid, saying that is a matter for the courts.

Closures: While other cities, such as New York, make public information on all restaurants closed by the city, Philadelphia officials said they do not keep track of which establishments are "voluntarily" closed by inspectors.

After an initial telephone interview with Health Department officials about the system, the department declined further requests for phone or in-person interviews. Instead, Jeff Moran, the health department spokesman, replied by email.

 Here is an example of one question-and-answer in the email exchange:

"Question: Out of the 7,800 restaurants, 3,291 were listed as out-of-compliance [with city code]. Is it therefore correct that 42 percent of restaurants inspected are out of compliance...?

Answer: Where do these numbers come from? How are they derived?"

The numbers came from a statewide database of food inspections kept by the state Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Food Safety and Laboratory Services. Go here to review these public records. people_eating_restaurant_61180830.jpg

The state has no role in inspecting food establishments in Philadelphia, according to Ag Department spokeswoman Nicole Bucher. That is the job of the city Health Department. "We simply post whatever they give us," she said.

A review of the inspection records raises additional questions.

The "risk-based" restaurant program is designed to target food establishments that serve raw food or have at-risk customers, such as hospitals. The goal, Raval-Nelson said, was to inspect these establishments as often as four times a year.

To use one example, the records show that Shinju Sushi on 900-block of Locust Street was only inspected twice in 2009, despite the fact that the last inspection in October 2009 found that non-sushi grade salmon was being served raw. The restaurant is listed as out of compliance.  

The restaurant has since closed operations at that address, changed its name to Fatsalmon, and moved to another locale on the 700-block of Walnut Street. Though it is still a sushi restaurant, there are no records of it being inspected this year.  Calls to the manager went unreturned.

In the past, some violations were deemed "critical" when they could lead to a food-borne illness, if not corrected. These violations are marked in red on the disclosure forms. In the October report, Shinju Sushi had a total of 12 violations; three of which appeared in red and were listed as "critical."

However, Moran, the Health Department spokesman, said the city has abandoned this classification. 

"The term 'critical violations' is not part of the new risk-based system," Moran wrote in an email response to Metropolis questions about the reports. "It has been replaced by the terms Food-borne Illness Risk Factors, Public Health Interventions, and Good Retail Practices and these new terms are defined on the new form."

He added: "The term 'critical violations' on the Department of Agriculture website was intended to help users compare the prior approach to the risk-based approach as we made the transition. Its removal is overdue."

After Metropolis questioned why the "critical violation" citation continued to appear on city inspections, it was replaced in late October with the phrase "Denotes Food-borne Illness Risk Factor,"

As can be seen from Moran's explanation, the reports are written in the complicated jargon of code enforcement.  It is hard to tell what is minor, what is major and sometimes even the nature of the violation.

Cooking.jpgOther cities make it easier for the public to understand the import and meaning of violations by assigning numeric values to each violation, adding them up, and giving a letter grade to each establishment. New York City implemented this system earlier this year, giving each food establishment a grade ranging from A to D and requiring them to post the grade where customers can see it. (More details on the New York system in Part One.)

Under Philadelphia's system, it is unclear which violations cross the line, what flags a second inspection and why some restaurants get cited time and time again without any apparent repercussions noted on the public record.  An example:

In November 2009, the restaurant Moshulu, the sailing ship-eatery docked on the Delaware River at Penn's Landing, was inspected following a complaint. An inspector found nine violations, including three with a "Food-borne Risk Factor."

"Potentially hazardous ready to eat food, prepared in the food facility, and held for more than 48 hours, located in a walk-in box, was not date marked," wrote the inspector.   Moran explained the results this way:

 "An inspection in November of 2009 that was conducted as the result of a complaint also noted missing hand washing signs and soap. At that time, the establishment was out of compliance for one Risk Factor, two Public Health Interventions, and eight Retail Practices."

Seven months later, in June 2010, the department went back, and found seven "Food-borne-risk factors." Moran said they were corrected, again, on site.  There has not been another inspection since and the restaurant is still listed as being out of compliance on the public record as kept by the Agriculture Department. Calls to management at the Moshulu were not returned.

Moran said the department does not have the power to close down a restaurant but can ask management to "voluntarily" close until a violation is corrected.

Those in the restaurant business say city officials have been closing down restaurants - often. But, they say the new regulations are ambiguous.

Robert Patton is a chef and instructor at the JNA Institute of Culinary Arts in South Philadelphia.   He teaches the two courses JNA students must pass to receive their sanitation certification from the city - and also teaches the course to restaurant employees throughout the city.

Patton says the city has been closing restaurants lately, mostly due to a lack of someone certified in the sanitation rules.  That's when he sees them at his door, asking for training in the rules.  He wouldn't divulge the names.

"When I worked in restaurants, we would have an inspector tell you one thing and tell you it needed to be changed and then in the follow-up, an inspector would tell you the exact opposite," Patton says. "It's not cut and dry."

Much of the inspection seems to be up to the inspector conducting the review, he said. "It's really up to the inspector," he says.  "Sometimes if there's a re-inspection they'll give you 48 hours or a week or up to two weeks to correct the violation."

According to Moran, re-inspection should occur after 30 days. According to public records, it is unclear how often that actually happens. Sometimes months can pass between the inspection that disclosed violations and a follow up inspection. Sometimes no follow ups are listed.

When asked about the infrequent inspections, Moran said the department inspectors and restaurant owners were just slow to learn the new risk-based system..

"Our current priority is educating operators about the new approach and reducing the most frequently occurring risk factors," he said.


Tomorrow: How the Health Department destroyed a data base that could have helped it in its mission to  enforce the food code.



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