Longtime readers of this five-year-old news service know that we’ve had our “issues” with the kid-glove treatment most state and federal agencies give the restaurant industry. Such treatment is not in the public interest, nor, ironically, is it doing restaurants much good either. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for example, still refers to the role of “Restaurant A” in a not-so-long-ago outbreak. Your scribes at Food Safety News identified the restaurant chain involved in that one as good old Taco Bell. This reluctance to name the chains involved extends to most foodborne illness investigations. At USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), retail destinations for recalled meat are quickly identified and shared with the public. So recalled meat that goes to Kroger’s outlets is tracked and publicized in story-by-story detail, but not recalled meat that goes to the chain of Applebee restaurants. Top food safety regulators in this country tend to share one problem. They are all so smart and educated that they need to over-think about problems that should just be outside their control. If they’d just let it be, it’s easy. Their job is to investigate and report, not get twisted up in whether this or that is fair. I’ve used this comparison before, but I think it’s a good one and one that I know to be true: All the facts about someone who is in a messy traffic accident in about any city in America with a honest police department must accept that all those facts become part of the public record. It makes no difference that you were the only one who wasn’t drinking and it was not your fault. You are still part of the story. Most cop shops got out of the censorship business for the routine stuff about 50 years ago. But we still have lawmakers and regulators trying to slice the edges off information about public health investigations. Others have said CDC, USDA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) fall short in the transparency department because of the power of lobbyists and the like. Personally, I wish that were true because then those of us on the transparency side could just get organized with bigger steaks or more expensive wine. But that’s not the primary motivator for top safety regulators. Most of them think public information should always be tied to advancing public health. But the public has other interests, too, and those almost always outweigh other considerations. The public clearly wants and deserves current accurate information about restaurants. They want all sorts of details — the times and dates — and then they will decide on their own. And here’s where reality makes its entrance. The public is going to gather facts from whatever sources are available. So, if CDC and USDA don’t cough up the real facts, the public will find other sources to fill in for them. I often find myself scrambling for some reliable source of local restaurant information when on the road. It’s hard to impossible to find one with write-ups on the food that also includes the establishment’s food safety reputation and history. Sometimes you can find restaurant inspection reports online and sometimes you cannot. If a restaurant has been part of a recent FDA, CDC, or USDA investigation, I’d like to know. So, when I returned from the South last week, a report from DiningGrades.com got my attention because it’s going to start a free food poisoning reporting service tracking food poisoning events. It might be an example of what I am talking about. Dining Grades announced it’s “free and intuitive” restaurant food poisoning service is going to work this way: • After selecting the restaurant, the user answers a limited number of questions about the event. • Contact information, for corroboration by experts, is added. • DiningGrades.com staff reviews the report. • The report can be sent to the respective restaurant management team and the respective state or community health department. • An alert is noted on the DiningGrades.com website/mobile devices for other diners. “DiningGrades.com is committed to improvement of food safety and enhancement of public health with this announcement,” says Dr. Harlan A Stueven, founder of the website. “We are offering this service free to any public health department and healthcare providers.” Dining Grades LLC was founded in 2010 and reportedly has thousands of users and ratings in all 50 states with a mission to promote food safety by increasing public awareness and formation of partnerships within the food industry. Stueven says Dining Grades was designed by physicians and a health department inspector and also offers restaurant patrons a tool to grade restaurants on cleanliness, satisfaction and recommendation. Dining Grades users who choose to become “Secret Diners” have an exclusive opportunity to grade a restaurant on cleanliness using a copyrighted demerit-based questionnaire that leads to a more comprehensive grade. I guess maybe the private sector is going to have to collect and provide all the restaurant information the public wants even if our government won’t participate. I don’t have enough experience with Dining Grades to make a recommendation, but it sure works here for illustrative purposes. The irony for the restaurant industry is that passing muster on this type of information service is likely to be more difficult than just dealing with some reaction to being named in a government food safety investigation. I do like Dining Grades’ mission of helping the public make “informed dining choices” through their private “event” reporting and grading system. And, as much as I like information provided by the dining public, I’d still like to see a restaurant’s entire public record online someplace before I see their menu.

  • WheelCon

    There are separate issues here: While information from qualified sources, such as a health department or the CDC is likely to be reliable, self-reporting is less likely to be reliable when it comes to the source of a food borne illness. Many diners attribute an illness to the last place they ate without any understanding of incubation time. I have been involved on multiple occasions where a diner reported getting ill from a restaurant where the fact did not support the allegation. These false allegations can cause a restaurant serious harm, so unless there is an investigation and a report from a health department, I would question the accuracy of reports presented in this manner.
    For those who follow on-line reviews, there is apparently documented evidence of competitors posting negative reviews on restaurants.
    I advise all those who take ServSafe Food Safety programs with me, or who are my clients to institute food safety measures above and beyond what is required to protect both the health of their customers and the health of their businesses. Included in my recommendations are provisions for employee sick leave and having an active managerial presence in the restaurant at all times.
    Eric F. Nusbaum, Ph.D., CHA
    Wheelwright Consultants