Food 4 Thought 

Restaurant inspections are going online. What will you learn?

Posted directly above the uniformed cashier at the Martinez Taco Bell is a laminated sign that reads, in bold black letters, "This facility is inspected by the local environmental health agency. A copy of the most recent environmental health inspection report is available here for review upon request."

Feeling emboldened by this pledge, I decide to exercise my rights as a diner.

"Can I see a copy of your latest health-inspection report?" I ask the young cashier.

"Huh?" he responds, screwing up his face with a befuddled grimace.

I point to the sign above his head. "The latest inspection report. Your sign here says I can see it."

"Hold on," the cashier says. Then he disappears behind the food prep area.

Two minutes later, a duty supervisor clad in full Taco Bell regalia appears from the back and asks what I'm looking for. Once again I point to the laminated sign. Then, to the obvious annoyance of the woman behind me, who probably has a hot lunch date with a Chalupa, the supervisor disappears for a few minutes. Finally, she emerges from the back carrying a clear plastic pouch that contains some paperwork.

"Is this what you wanted?" she asks, pulling out what looks like a building permit. The document lists the restaurant's square footage and other related numbers, and comes attached to what appear to be architectural blueprints that could have been crafted by Mike Brady himself.

Of course, I know this is not the restaurant's most recent health-inspection report because I've already seen its most recent inspection -- not to mention the ten reports before that. I know, for instance, that the April 26 report says the inspector found a rat dropping in a drawer on the food prep line. And I know that's not nearly as bad as the rat infestation an inspector found earlier in the year after someone complained about finding a rat turd in her Grilled Stuft Burrito.

"This doesn't look like a health-inspection report," I say.

By now, the supervisor is openly suspicious of me.

"Do you have a problem with my facility?" she asks.

Rather than risk the wrath of an ever-growing line of hungry patrons, I abruptly thank her and cut short my first attempt to flex my rights as a burrito buyer.

Since January 1, 2001, restaurants have been required by state law to show interested customers their most recent health-inspection report. It's a relatively toothless public-disclosure law that few consumers and even few restaurateurs know about, the result of a political compromise worked out between state Senator Byron Sher and the California Restaurant Association a couple of years ago. Industry lobbyists hoped it would put an end to the crazy talk about requiring local health agencies around the state to post inspection reports on the Internet. Governors Pete Wilson and Gray Davis vetoed Internet disclosure legislation in 1998 and 1999, bowing to industry opposition.

However, the law didn't preclude local agencies from posting restaurant inspections on the Internet. And by the time the final watered-down bill got passed, bureaucratic inertia had already set in. Fully expecting a state mandate, local environmental health directors began planning to, ahem, beef up their Internet operations. Now, county health agencies around the state, including those of San Francisco, Santa Clara, and San Mateo counties, are posting inspections online. And guess what, East Bay dining connoisseurs? Alameda and Contra Costa counties and the city of Berkeley are all planning to launch their own food-inspection Web sites in the next few months. Inspection information that once could only be obtained via time-consuming Public Records Act requests will now be only a click away.

But while the new inspection-report Web sites will give consumers plenty of information about their favorite restaurants, they won't say much about the priorities of the agencies that conduct those inspections. And when it comes to restaurant regulation, you practically need a dining guide, because the standards and methods of local health inspectors are all over the menu.

Eating out is a way of life in the East Bay. Yet along with the pleasures of eating out come the occasional health risks. According to the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 76 million people a year suffer food-borne illnesses, causing 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. Health officials say most cases go unreported, but restaurants, delis, and cafeterias were the largest sources of food poisoning in a CDC study. Here in the East Bay, during the 2001-2002 fiscal year there were approximately 460 food poisoning complaints made to local environmental health agencies. This is why we need vigilant health inspectors to protect us. So how well are our three East Bay environmental health jurisdictions -- Berkeley, Alameda, and Contra Costa counties -- protecting us from getting sick?

There's good news and bad news. The good news: You're safe most every time you go out and eat in the East Bay. The bad news: Dozens of East Bay restaurants with serious health violations -- from vermin infestations to repeatedly leaving perishable meats at bacteria-friendly room temperatures -- are open for business right now. Additionally, although East Bay health departments typically set a goal of inspecting restaurants three to four times a year, restaurants often operate without inspection for more than a year at a time. The reasons for these truths vary because, again, standards and enforcement philosophies differ from agency to agency.

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