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Tell me more - Commentary from the Food Safety Network

04.oct.06, Douglas Powell and Ben Chapman, Food Safety Network

In the absence of regular media exposés, or a reality TV show where camera crews follow an inspector into a restaurant unannounced, how do diners actually know if their favorite restaurants are as concerned about food safety as they are?

04.oct.06, Douglas Powell and Ben Chapman, Food Safety Network
Food safety is on the menu.
And for consumers who place their lives in the hands of someone else every time they dine out, this is good.
Like the King family of Hixson, Tenn. Lexie, Kelsey and Harley King, three of the King's four children, reportedly contracted E. coli O157:H7 at a local restaurant in July. Father Mark King missed five weeks of work while his children were in and out of the hospital with complications. Following the release of Lexie, mother Janet said, "There's certain restaurants we choose not to eat at."
The Kings aren't alone. But how do they know?
Restaurant inspection information in North America is inherently public, and so it should be. Yet, every location is different -- some view the availability of restaurant inspection results as a public right, some as a public nuisance.
In the absence of regular media exposés, or a reality TV show where camera crews follow an inspector into a restaurant unannounced, how do diners actually know if their favorite restaurants are as concerned about food safety as they are?
In 1998, Los Angeles dealt with an exposé of their own. A local TV station showed yuck-factor items like cockroaches in kitchens and rodent infestations. The Mayor told the county health department to fix the situation. In a few months, the result was a more robust public health system: mandatory training for restaurant operators; an influx of inspectors; and an influential and replicated restaurant grading system – using grades A, B and C posted at the door. Patrons loved it, and the county reported a drop in their incidence of foodborne illness.
In the years since Los Angeles introduced their system, over 100 North American jurisdictions have started proactively disclosing inspection results. But like childrens' report cards, grades are only part of the story. Public health systems like LA's work, not just because of the grade posted, but because of their mandate to engage in a dialogue with restaurant operators and, more importantly, the public about food safety.
Some restaurant managers say that publicly available grades motivate them to avoid the stigma of a bad grade. Some managers even display the inspection information proactively, as reported recently in Halifax -- a coy marketing ploy that is great if the day-to-day practices match the report.
The goal of grading systems is to rapidly communicate to diners the potential risk in dining at a particular establishment; A clean bathroom supposedly means the cook has clean hands. We just don't believe it is that simple. What's more important is the ongoing culture of food safety within any establishment. A grade reflects how restaurant staff behaved while an inspector was present; the challenge is to motivate employees and managers to practice good food safety day-in-day-out, whether an inspector is present or not.
The disclosure of restaurant inspection results is superficially satisfying and should be done. But does posting inspection results impact the intentions and practices of food handlers? Do diners really make decisions based on knowledge of inspection results? Is it worth the public money to develop a grading and disclosure system? There are limitations because an inspection report only reflects conditions at one point in time, good or bad.
Providing information to a hungry public is a must. But more importantly, such public displays of information might just bolster overall awareness of safe food handling practices. The interested public -- especially families like the Kings who have been affected by -- can handle more, not less, information about food safety on their menus.
Douglas Powell is scientific director of the Food Safety Network at Kansas State University and Ben Chapman is a graduate student with FSN at the University of Guelph.
Powell: 785-317-0560
dpowell@ksu.edu