HARRISBURG — Food inspectors cited Pennsylvania restaurants for a wide range of violations at least 1,721 times over the last year, state records show.
That’s not the full number, because in dozens of communities across the state — including Northumberland, Danville and Sunbury — inspections are conducted by local health departments that don’t always share their findings on the state Department of Agriculture’s food safety website.
Even in those cases, diners would only know if they ask the restaurant’s manager for a copy of an inspection report or log onto a Department of Agriculture web site and search for inspection reports. Pennsylvania lacks any meaningful posting requirements that would allow diners to know what kind of food safety history restaurants have.
Inspectors from the Department of Agriculture conduct the restaurant checks in much of the state, but in about 60 counties and municipalities, the reviews are done by local inspectors.
The state allows local inspectors to load their reports into the online database but the state has no control over whether they do, said Lydia Johnson, director of the Bureau of Food Safety for the state Department of Agriculture. Inspection reports from Philadelphia and Allegheny County are housed on web sites run by the heath departments there.
In the last year, only officials in Chester County and 14 local health departments submitted information into the online database showing that they’d failed any restaurants. Those local inspectors were in: Allentown, Coplay, Connellsville, Chambersburg, Easton, Emmaus, Harrisburg, Lancaster, Landsdowne, New Alexandria, Northampton, Scranton, Susquehanna Township and York.
Each restaurant is inspected before it opens and then at least once a year. Inspections will occur more often if the inspectors get complaints or earlier inspections reveal problems.
The inspections run the gamut from checking “the hot dog roller” in a convenience store to checking large banquet facilities, Johnson said.
When a restaurant fails the inspection, the business gets a warning letter and a return visit from the inspector, Johnson said.
State records show that even when inspectors give restaurants passing grades, it’s not uncommon for them to cite the business for minor infractions.
“A restaurant may have a few violations and still be in compliance, or it may have only one violation and be out of compliance,” the Agriculture Department explains on its web site. In the Susquehanna Valley, 327 of 1,009 facilities with reports on the Department of Agriculture website have some sort of violation, and 162 of those have just a single violation.
The Department of Agriculture categorizes violations as being matters that increase risks of food-borne illness and those that violate good retail practices, said Martin Bucknavage, senior food safety extension associate for the Penn State Cooperative Extension.Violations that create potential for food-borne illness will generally prompt inspectors to consider the restaurant non-compliant with food laws. These include things like: inadequately cooked food, contaminated food, food from unsafe sources, and poor hygiene by restaurant staff. Only four Valley locations fit into this category in their most recent inspections.
In most cases, the violations are things that can be corrected while the inspector is there.
Once the inspection is completed, the restaurant must keep a copy of the inspection on site so that members of the public can view them upon request. Restaurants must post signs saying the inspection reports are available, Johnson said. But the state doesn’t require that the restaurant post an inspection score. Some states, including New York, give restaurants food safety grades which must be posted for diners to see.
New York began using the food grades shortly after the Center for Science in the Public Interest released a 2008 report that described posting of inspection grade cards at restaurants as an “inexpensive, effective way to provide consumers with critical information.” The group pointed to a survey it had commissioned which found that 84 percent of people surveyed supported the idea of states and local governments requiring the grade cards.
A 2015 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that the restaurant letter-grading program used in New York City led to improved restaurant hygiene, food-safety practices, and public awareness. It was this kind of research that Allegheny County health officials pointed to in pushing to get grade cards required at restaurants.
But in May of 2015, after intense lobbying against the plan by the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, the Allegheny County council voted 13-1 against the plan to adopt grade cards for restaurants.
The trade group was opposed because there is evidence that the benefits of grade cards are over-stated, said John Longstreet, Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association president and chief executive officer.
Longstreet said that once the grading system was in place a few years in New York, for instance, grade inflation largely undermined the effectiveness of the system. Restaurants can appeal their grade if they get a bad score, he said. Those appeals tie up the time of inspectors, so there’s a disincentive for inspectors to give bad grades, Longstreet said.
Longstreet said that the difference between an “A” grade and a “B” could be 1 percent on the inspection score, but the fallout for restaurants hit with the lesser score was drastic.
In New York, restaurants given “B” grades saw revenue drop 40 percent, he said.
Johnson said she’s unaware of any other movement in Pennsylvania to compel restaurants to post food safety grades.
A review of a legislative database revealed no indication that any state lawmaker has introduced or even proposed legislation that would change the food safety posting rules.
The food safety rules used by inspectors are set by the federal government, she said. If the federal rules indicated that the states should post food safety grades, Pennsylvania would do so, Johnson said.
Longstreet said that a better way to give consumers access to information would be use technology to allow them to use their phones to match restaurant locations with their inspection reports. In Plano, Texas, the health department posts QR codes at restaurants, which diners can scan with their phones to pull up the inspection reports, he said.
Just a snapshot
Bonnie McCann, a Department of Agriculture spokeswoman, said that the public needs to recognize that “inspections are a snapshot” of food safety conditions in a restaurant, representing the situation when the inspector shows up.
That was a point echoed by Bucknavage, Penn State Cooperative Extension senior food safety extension associate The extension provides training for restaurant supervisors in how to comply with the food safety rules. State law requires that a restaurant must at all times have one supervisor on duty who has completed the training.
Bucknavage said that while the state’s move in 2013 to begin posting inspection reports online was a win for transparency, it’s difficult to know how meaningful the move is to diners. Few people will think to check the state database for information about a restaurant before they go out to eat, he said.
A more important step for the public might be to participate in the state’s monitoring, he said.
If people see things in restaurant that seem unsanitary, they should report it to the Department of Agriculture so inspectors can take a look, he said.
“I think it’s important to do that,” Bucknavage said.
Complaints about restaurant’s food safety can be made online at: http://www.pda.pa.gov/FoodSafetyComplaint/
John Finnerty is the Statehouse reporter for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., parent company of The Daily Item. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.