Making the grade: Salt Lake restaurant inspections now user-friendly
May 12, 2009
Last month, Salt Lake County began a new on-line service allowing the public to see restaurant inspection reports done by the health department. The reports have always been public record, but the new site is more user-friendly and is intended to help the public be educated consumers.
The new site gives restaurants and every other food-license holder a grade from one to four stars. Davis County also makes its records available online.
Bob Swensen, environmental health director for the Summit County Health Department said there’s no such program here and he has no plans to create one.
He thinks it’s a great idea, but the current system isn’t digital and mostly paper-based. When everything is updated in future years, he could foresee a similar site being created.
But Swensen said he’s in no hurry. Health departments giving restaurants grades or stars is a good idea and is many people access the information, but it’s hard to summarize an inspection report into something useful to the public.
He compared reading the reports to reading legal documents in an attorney’s office.
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"Unless you’re already familiar with it and are doing it all the time, it’s like a foreign language," he said. "It’s hard to get a definitive answer on whether that restaurant is clean. There’s so much confusion and so many different things you look at."
For example, he said, the department rates all problems as critical or non-critical. Even critical problems don’t necessarily mean there’s a sanitation problem.
Different establishments are also rated according to risk. Because fast food franchises move quickly in cooking frozen food and serving it, there’s less risk of problems than a fine restaurant that marinates ingredients for several hours. But an infraction at a fine restaurant, doesn’t mean it isn’t first-rate, he said.
Swensen said he’s also concerned about eateries getting long-lasting bad grades for short-term problems. If an establishment had a broken appliance like a refrigerator or heating device, food might not be stored at the right temperature. That amounts to many points lost, but it doesn’t mean a customer was at risk. And an appliance is easy to fix or replace in 24 hours.
"Unless you see the whole picture it doesn’t tell you all the facts," he said.
He thinks the programs in Davis and Salt Lake County are good at showing all the information, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to read and use in making a decision about where to eat.
California law requires letter grades to be given and posted on restaurant windows. That was tried in various Utah counties about 15 years ago but didn’t last long, Swensen said. One problem was that inspectors were being pressured like teachers are to forgive a single point or two that changed an "A" to a "B."
Sue Hortin, co-owner of the Main Street Huddle, and Shabu owner Kevin Valaika said user-friendly sites like those in Davis and Salt Lake County are a good thing. They have the potential to reward kitchens that take county rules seriously.
"I wouldn’t care if it was here," Hortin said. "I’ve never had a problem with the health department."
Valaika said there’s really no excuse for allowing a major violation in a kitchen. If a restaurant got a lower score from the health department, consumers should know.
"I prefer to see things public," he said.
Blanca Gohary of Good Karma isn’t sure such a service would be necessary in Park City proper. In her experience, the city inspections are so thorough and the requirements so stringent that operating without a clean bill of health would be next to impossible.
"The inspection process is a lot more discriminatory here," she said.
Even food-vendor permits for special events like the Park Silly Sunday Market are hard to qualify for, she said.