My first job was behind a soda fountain in a small town general store with a lunch counter and four booths. Ever since, I’ve had it in the back of my mind that I should someday open my own restaurant. Once, when I came close to doing it, a friend whom I’d talked out of buying a boat returned the favor by turning me away from the restaurant business. A big job for food safety is the inspection of the nation’s 616,008 restaurants, where we drop 47 cents out of every dollar we spend on food. Inspecting all those restaurants and monitoring the food safety activities of their 13.5-million workers is a job that’s even too big for the federal government. Restaurant inspections are a task we’ve assigned to approximately 2,800 local health departments, including city, county, metropolitan, district and tribal agencies. These local health departments license and inspect restaurants and provide food safety training for food service professionals. State and local taxes and fees pay for restaurant inspections, and those funding sources have flatlined in recent years, leaving local health departments trying to do more with less. Many local programs call for doing two unannounced inspections at each restaurant per year. However, the Association of Food and Drug Officials reports that local health departments conducted more than three-quarters of a million inspections (760,749) in 2009. The NPD Group, which tracks the restaurant market, says there were 584,653 restaurants operating in 2009. That means about 1.3 inspections per restaurant, not two. And local health department budget cuts had only begun in 2009. It’s likely there are restaurants in the U.S. that now go more than a year before being inspected. And we depend on these local health departments for more than inspections. The National Association of County and City Health Officials, representing the 2,800 local departments, points out a few:

  • Trainings and technical assistance. Local health departments are responsible for training and certifying food safety managers at grocery stores, restaurants, and mobile food unit operations.
  • Frontline surveillance. Local health departments are often the first to receive and respond to reports of potential foodborne illness outbreaks and food safety-related consumer complaints at the local level.
  • Outbreak response and recalls. Local health departments respond to outbreaks, participate in recall efforts, and communicate with the public about outbreaks and recalls.
  • Public education. Local health departments utilize varied marketing and outreach techniques to educate the public on the importance of food safety practices.

Against this background, restaurant inspections were in the news this past week when Weld County, CO, adopted an A-to-F letter grading system, only to see it called into question by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. As Food Safety News readers know, the A-to-F letter grading was listed among former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s accomplishments when he left office at the end of 2013. It’s been depicted by some as both being popular with New Yorkers and reducing foodborne illness in the Big Apple. I’m not sure if either of those claims stand up on their own, or if they were just part of the Bloomberg propaganda machine. For better or worse, Bloomberg’s much-heralded posting of letter grades has been about the only restaurant inspection reform during this fiscally tough period when most local health departments have just struggled to keep doing the basics. Colorado, for example, has used the same inspection regime developed in the early 1990s. State and local officials are starting a process that could lead to the first changes in a generation in the basic inspection system.  They want a better way of communicating with the public based not on solo incidents while weighing the prevalence of specific violations. Fiscal recovery at the state and local level will likely cause many other restaurant inspection programs to review what they are doing for the first time in years. This might be a good time for a larger top-to-bottom review of the effectiveness of different restaurant inspection systems. We were dubious when claims were made that Bloomberg’s letter grade postings were responsible for declines in foodborne illnesses in New York City, but maybe it’s true. We’d like to see respected organizations such as the Association of Food and Drug Officials and the National Association of County and City Health Officials get together and analyze restaurant inspection systems across the country and come up with recommendations on the most effective. While we think this is a good time for the professionals to come up more effective restaurant inspections, there is another problem. If, as the data suggest, there are only 1.3 inspections annually for each restaurant, we have a problem. Many local departments inspect all their restaurants two or three times a year. That means there are restaurants out there waiting more than a year to get inspected. We need effective restaurant inspections, and we need more of them. It’s time to recognize that years of fiscal cutbacks at the state and local levels have taken their toll and do something about it.