Restaurant health inspection scores pushed into spotlight

For four years now, the owners of New York City-based Bareburger have provided neighborhood residents with protein options free of hormones and pesticides. The company's 14 restaurants have been built and decorated using reclaimed wood and other recycled materials, and the company's mission to be as eco-friendly as possible.

In order to maintain both its reputation and customer base, the owners have taken great strides to ensure that each of their restaurants pass mandatory health inspections.

"The health inspector is the advocate of all patrons dining in licensed food service establishments. Bareburger feels it is our responsibility to not only be an advocate of our guests, but of the health inspector as well," said Mark Turner, Bareburger operations manager. "We recognize the importance of safe food handling and therefore go to great measures to reflect that recognition."

Bareburger performs its own detailed inspection and hired Mark Mananiello, a former health inspector, to also perform an examination of each location.

To better prepare for inspections, Mananiello, founder of New York-based Restaurant Professional Services, said operators need to view their restaurants through the eyes of their customer and health inspector.

"A lot of operators know their operations very well, but as with any business they get tunnel vision," he said. "The need to walk into their establishment as an inspector and look at what they're looking for as objectively as they can."

Additionally, operators need to be aware of food safety regulations and requirements and they need to thoroughly train their staff on those regulations as well, Mananiello said.

Communication is key

"You're allowed to have items out of refrigerator for preparation, that's part of the code," Mananiello said. However, operators need to communicate to the inspector why the food is out and they need to ask the inspector to discuss possible issues and violations.

A greater good

While Bareburger's measures seem extreme, for many restaurant operators the cost and time is well worth it.

As consumers have become more food savvy, their understanding of food safety practices has increased as well. Also on the rise: the availability of restaurant scores on websites such as Yelp and community government pages.

In June, Louisville, Ky., Mayor Greg Fisher announced the city's partnership with Yelp to post restaurant scores on the website's restaurant reviews. Louisville is the second city in the country — behind San Francisco — to partner with Yelp on the service. The city also is the hometown of Yum! Brands, Papa John's and Texas Roadhouse.

As part of the agreement, restaurant scores are provided to Yelp on a daily basis. The city also is working with the website to post the precise types of violations each restaurant has received and a 3-year history of health inspections.

The decision to post scores on the Yelp site was made to give city diners access to more government data in addition to keeping community members healthy, Fisher said at the June announcement.

Posted scores lead to better practices

According to a study of the Los Angeles restaurant industry, when consumers have better exposure to restaurant hygiene scores, the number of hospitalizations due to foodborne illness drops. The study also found that when restaurant scores are openly posted, best practices improve across the industry.

Gretchen Boyd, food safety supervisor with the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness, said city inspectors look for five critical Centers for Disease Control and Prevention factors contributing to foodborne illnesses, in addition to the city's 17-item critical violations checklist. The top five CDC risk factors are:

  1. Improper food temperatures for hot and cold storage
  2. Improper food temperature cook times
  3. Contaminated prep areas and utensils
  4. Improper employee hygiene
  5. Food from unsafe sources

The city also has a local ordinance in place that states each restaurant shift must include someone certified in safe food handling, either through the National Restaurant Association's ServSafe program or a local certification course.

Food trucks added

Additionally, the State of Kentucky has a permit program for food trucks, which means the truck can travel from county to county to operate after its inspection by public health and wellness officials.

"Health inspections of food trucks haven't been as difficult as we thought because they're posting where they're going to be and when. And every Tuesday of the month they all set up in front of City Hall," Boyd said. "You're always going to have those ones — just like restaurants — that are difficult to get to, but we're working on that. They're here to stay and we're here to ensure they uphold the same standard as the restaurant."

Read more about food safety.

Cover photo: Flickr

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