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What You Don't Know Can Hurt You

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In 2006, city officials spent what they called a "huge investment of city hours" putting together a database of restaurant inspections. They compiled the list at the request of a newspaper reporter working on a story about the inspection process, but the list had value in and of itself.

For the first time, instead of having a sheet of paper for each individual inspection, the city had a complete data record of all inspections going back to 2003.

They could have built on this database going forward - so they could know at a glance how often a restaurant was inspected over several years and the results. The information could have been made public so interested citizens could inspect it.  

Instead, it was "thrown out" said city officials.

Today, instead of keeping inspection information in a spreadsheet format - name, address, date of inspection, violations -- the information is kept in a paper document. 

Anyone wanting to get an overview of the department's inspection process would need to download each individual inspection, one by one, deciphering the codes, creating their own database.  All over again.

Also, because the paper records take up so much storage space -- as opposed to putting them on several CDs -- the city tosses all inspection records after three years.  

When Metropolis raised questions about the department's record-keeping practice,

city spokeswoman Maura Kennedy, Department of Health spokesman Jeff Moran,  Kevin Vaughan, Deputy Health Commissioner and Palak Raval-Nelson, the chief of the Office of Food Inspection, got on one conference call to discuss how the department keeps records.Moshulu Report.jpg  

Four years ago, a request I made while I was a reporter at the Inquirer prompted the city to compile the database.  Apparently, it was a one-time only thing.

"So you're saying that the department had one person who created this database just for me?"  I asked.

"Yes" said one of the voices.

"You're telling me that one person sat there and entered in 36,000 restaurant inspections into a spreadsheet?  That it wasn't already in some kind of electronic form? "

"We can't say exactly what they did. But it took considerable time and expense on the city's part."

"Then why throw it away?"

"We can't speak to what previous administrations did."

 So they can say that the previous administration spent a lot of time and effort putting something together, but can't say how much it cost, what it took to put the data together or why they threw it away.        

The city has about 12,000 facilities that serve food, from hospital cafeterias to swank four-star restaurants.

Inspectors from 10 district offices go out and inspect restaurants every day.  They look at the handwashing facilities - is there soap?  They look at the food storage and prep areas to make sure employees are wearing gloves and keeping raw meat away from cooked meat.  They check for bugs and mice and dirty conditions and too warm temperatures and too cold temperatures and all the things that walk the fine line between a great meal and food poisoning.

Although the inspectors used hand-held computers at the start of the new risk-based program that was outlined in Part Two, there were lots of problems, said Nelson. They went to paper records for about six weeks and now are trying to use the hand-held devices again.

But those hand-held computers don't immediately send the information to a central database.  They save the information as a pdf file.

At the end of every week, the supervisors from each of the 10 districts send Nelson an email, listing the number of restaurants inspected.  And the department uses those emails to review its own work - how many inspections it has done, what violations are occurring, which restaurants have been cited or closed.

It is unclear how the department can evaluate its own performance if it must do so by analyzing 20,000 inspections a year, all on paper. 

A spreadsheet would make it easier to determine the most common violation or what restaurant had repeated problems or how many restaurants were inspected per month.

City officials said that they agree computerized records would be better and "they are moving toward a computerized system," said Kennedy.   But it's a matter of allocating staff time.

When asked why the city did not put together another database as they did four years ago, Kennedy said the new Freedom of Information law did not specifically require the department to do so. 

But they said they would provide the documents, printed out. The individual reports - those pdfs - are also available online, one at a time, at a restaurant inspection site maintained by the state Department of Agriculture. 

City officials strongly object to the accusation that they are not being transparent. The public can look at the inspections online, though a Metropolis examination of that online site showed that only 7,888 establishments were listed as being inspected since February 2009, far fewer than the 12,000 food establishments the city has..

The Health Department does keep one thing electronically - the enforcement database. That spreadsheet contains lawyer names, inspection fees, legal information, and how much each restaurant was fined, Nelson said.  They declined a request to disclose the fines.

Asking for this information, Nelson said it was like "asking for a personal medical record."

Kennedy, the city spokeswoman, said it was not appropriate to release the enforcement information to the public.

"We couldn't produce for you a database of people whose properties have been demolished or those who received citations for littering," she said.

Until this summer, the city hosted a searchable database on its website where the public could search to see if their favorite restaurant had rodents, unsanitary conditions or other problems.

Those inspections have now been moved to the state Department of Agriculture site.  You can still search for any restaurant and see if it's out of compliance.  You can search by restaurant name.  You can search by zip code.

You can pull up the first 500 records in your zip code and see how many are out of compliance.  Many are. 

For example, take Bobby Chez's Famous Jumbo Lump Crabcakes of South Street. The restaurant was inspected on Sept. 22, 2009 and then on October 22, 2009. 

The second "re-inspection" found several repeat violations, including the fresh mouse droppings in the prep areas.

"This inspection has revealed that the establishment is not in satisfactory compliance and that current management practices have allowed unacceptable public health or food safety conditions. Corrective action is required to eliminate these violations. Compliance status will be assessed upon re-inspection."  

It's unclear whether the restaurant was fined or another inspection was completed before the restaurant went out of business in August.

 

Read Part One:  How one city gets it right with restaurant inspections.

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