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Monday, February 2, 2009

The Dirt on Restaurant Inspections: Health Department Gets Failing Grade

(Originally written September 4, 2008)

The El Paso County Health Department says it can't perform all required inspections of retail food establishments, public pools, and tattoo parlors. There is a solution that doesn’t require increasing taxes or added bureaucracy.

Rosemary Bakes-Martin, an El Paso County Public Health Administrator, says, “With increased populations, more restaurants are opening up. We can’t get out and do the inspections we are supposed to do, even those that are mandated by state law, so we are seeing more people get sick from eating in some of our restaurants.”

For each of the last three years, complaints and food-borne illness outbreaks have increased. The reported illness or complaints requiring Health Department attention rose from 60 in 2005 to 299 in 2007. In 2007 there were two reported food borne illness outbreaks, and in the first half of 2008 there were 14.

On August 2, 2008 the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest released a report listing cities with the dirtiest restaurants. Colorado Springs ranked as the fourth dirtiest with 46 violations in 30 restaurants and Denver was seventh with 35 violations in 30 restaurants.

Surprisingly, the situation in El Paso County may lead to improved health conditions. Restaurants are now responsible for the safety of their customers and can no longer pass it on to the government.

In 1993, a chain of Jack-In-The-Box restaurants in Washington started an E. coli outbreak hospitalizing 11 children, killing one, and leaving eight on kidney dialysis. The outbreak came because the chain did not cook their burgers at the new, higher temperature established by the Health Department. The restaurant passed its previous inspection, but the Health Department admits they may not have properly informed the restaurants about the change. The Health Department gave Jack-In-The-Box a false sense of security. The restaurant had no reason to change their actions because they trusted the government inspection. This failure not only caused many to get sick, but gave the restaurants an excuse to pass the blame to the government.

The private sector can help provide solutions to this problem. There are private inspectors for homes and building, why not restaurants? A Florida inspection company, BSF Food & Alcohol Testing, picks up the slack for the government’s failures. Vincent Giordano, Vice President at BSF, explains that the Florida government “inspectors would allow establishments to remain open with 50-150 critical violations and only perform inspections once or twice a year…Usually an [official] inspector is in and out within an hour; we usually take about 3-4 hours and leave a very detailed report.” The company has been contacted to do inspections in two Colorado tattoo parlors and says they would be eager to work with Colorado restaurants.

It is important for businesses to provide a safe and clean environment for their customers.

If a restaurant cuts corners and does not maintain a clean facility, control pests, and properly store and prepare food, the customers will not have a pleasant experience. Few people want to eat in a dirty restaurant or have mice or cockroaches scurrying around. Beyond that, one of the most effective ways to lose customers is to make them sick.

Private inspections would make restaurants more responsible for the health of their customers by taking the sole burden off the government. Hiring private inspectors, secret shoppers, and better managers will attract diners by assuring them that the restaurants are safe and clean. Supplemental private inspections also help assure the businesses that they will be able to pass their next county inspections.

Consumer advocates and the media can also step in to make things cleaner and safer. They provide another incentive for cleanliness by exposing dirty and unsafe conditions to the public.

If a restaurant or inspection company fails, they lose money and go out of business. If the government fails, it asks for more tax dollars. By hiring private sector inspection companies, El Paso County restaurants can make themselves known for exemplary standards of safety.

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