Academic journal article Journal of Environmental Health

Food Service Health Inspectors' Opinions on the Reporting of Inspections in the Media. (Features)

Academic journal article Journal of Environmental Health

Food Service Health Inspectors' Opinions on the Reporting of Inspections in the Media. (Features)

Article excerpt

Introduction

Food safety is one of the most important issues facing the food service industry and it continues to dominate headlines across the nation. In recent research conducted by the International Food Safety Council in Chicago (Featsent, 1998), 52 percent of consumers reported that food safety has become more important to them than it was a year before, and 79 percent of those surveyed indicated that they had seen media coverage of food safety in recent months. Outbreaks of foodborne illness are estimated to cost up to $23 billion per year to food service establishments, consumers, and the national economy (Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, 1995). These outbreaks are thought to cause up to 76 million cases of foodborne illness, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year (Mead et al., 1999).

Health department inspection reports on restaurants are open to the public, but until recently were not widely read. Historically, consumers interested in inspection results for a particular restaurant had to visit the health department and request to look at the records. Health departments were sometimes reluctant to share results because of the concern that records might be lost, stolen, or altered.

Recently, because of growing consumer interest in food safety, results from restaurant inspections have become more widely available through newspapers, radio, and television. In addition, results may also be made available on Web sites or through telephone hotlines.

A variety of methods are used in cities that publish such information. Outlets generally include newspapers, television, and radio reporting done on a daily, weekly, biweekly or monthly basis. In addition, some cities, such as Atlanta; Denver; San Francisco; Oakland, California; New York; and Raleigh, North Carolina, either have searchable databases or post lists on their Internet sites (Downey, 2000; Lueck & Macfarquhar, 2000; Martin, 1998). Telephone hotlines with current inspection results are being used in some areas.

The type of information made available also varies widely. Some jurisdictions report only scores from the last inspection, while others include more complete descriptions of violations. In a few cities, previous inspection results also are included. Numerical scores, percentages, and letter grades are some of the ways that the inspection reports are summarized in the media.

The type of information reported depends in part on the type of food service inspection system used by the local health department. Inspections, as outlined in the Food Code, are the primary tool a regulatory agency uses for detecting procedures and practices that may cause foodborne illness and for taking actions to correct deficiencies (U.S. Public Health Service, Food and Drug Administration [FDA], 1999). They may include the traditional system, a newer sys tem of analyzing critical and noncritical violations (as outlined in the 1999 Food Code), or a hazard analysis critical control point (HACCP)--based system, as well as variations on these methods.

The traditional scoring still used by some health departments relies on a demerit system and deducts points for each violation from a possible score of 100 points (Educational Foundation of the National Restaurant Association, 2000). Critical violations are valued at 4 to 5 points, and non-critical violations are worth 1 to 2 points. The simplest way to interpret this kind of score is by way of an analogy with a 100-point pass/fail test. Some health departments may even assign letter grades as a reflection of how well the operation performed during the inspection (Fielding & Ulene, 2000). For instance, a health department might assign a grade of A for a score of 90-100 points, B for a score of 80-89 points, and C for a score of 70-79 points. More complex systems might interpret results by including scores from previous inspections to analyze trends over time. …

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