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More money for scoreless restaurant inspections advances in Colorado

Colorado will know by mid-May if Senate Republicans were as quick to make a deal with the restaurant industry as were House Democrats. The outcome could mean more money to pay for local restaurant inspections, but it could also mean more murky reports on those inspections.

At issue is House Bill 16-1401, which the Democrat-controlled lower chamber approved on a vote of 42 -to-11 with 12 excused.  It has until the Legislature adjourns on or about May 11 to get through the Senate, run by the GOP, and on to Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s desk.

benjaminknifefork_406x250The bill calls for increases in annual licensing fees paid by retail food establishments and schedules them for Jan. 1 of 2017, 2018, and 2019. But after the first fee bump, the others would take effect only if the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment implements a “uniform system to communicate health inspection reports to the public…”

Any public health department accepting money from the state’s increased fee system would be required to use the uniform reporting system.

The Colorado Restaurant Association has reportedly agreed to support the fee increases in exchange for getting its way on how restaurant inspections are reported under the uniform system.

Dr. Richard Raymond, the  retired Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for Food Safety who now lives in Northern Colorado, does not like the deal the House Democrats have made.

“If our restaurants go to a pass/fail scoring system, I am guessing there will be many who do just the minimum to get by and pass, which would cover current grading from excellent to marginal and no one will be the wiser,” Raymond wrote in his nationally-read Meatingplaze column. “At least not until 2-3 days later, that is…”

Restaurants want detailed info, not letter grades, for public reports
Larimer County’s restaurant inspection database is an example of a reporting format that is easily accessible to the public. The local newspaper publishes how restaurants did in recent inspections with reports using a scoring system of Excellent, Good, Average, Marginal or Inadequate. In neighboring Weld County, restaurants are scored based on their most recent inspections by letter grades, A to F.

In contrast to the Northern Colorado counties, restaurant inspection reports on the City and County of Denver’s website shows the number of Type 1 and 2 violations found during an inspection. There are 36 possible Type 1 and 28 Type 2 violations.

Where there has been a violation, a text explanation is provided. Denver also currently provides access to the investigator comments. At least some of this reporting will have to be erased if HB16-1401 becomes law.

The “uniform” reporting system, according to the bill language, “must provide meaningful and reasonable detailed information to the public and must NOT summarize the results of the inspection with the public and must not summarize the inspection with a letter, number or symbol grading system or similar oversimplified method of quantifying results.”

The bill language is consistent with the Colorado Restaurant Association’s 16-year old position paper that claims “posting of scores is bad public policy.” The same policy statement says consumers who want one inspection report should be required to look at the past three so as to get a more accurate look at the establishment’s operation over time.

Weld County adopted A-F letter grades two years ago over the opposition of restaurant owners in Colorado’s fastest growing county. The change has resulted in a 50 percent reduction in the inspection failure rate and a boost in its web traffic by consumers checking scores.

Some areas of Colorado, mostly counties high in the Rocky Mountains that depend on tourists, rely on the state to inspect restaurants. These include Clear Creek, Grand, Jackson, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties. Gunnison County is now switching over to local inspections.

License and inspection fees were last increased in 2009. There are just under 19,000 retail food establishments in the state, including the Denver metro area. If all fee increases included in HB16-1401 do take effect, about $5.2 million in additional money will be available annually for restaurant inspections.

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