Usually when we go out to restaurants for an afternoon meal, we don’t tend to think too much about what goes on behind the doors to the kitchen, and in many cases, we probably don’t necessarily want to. However, in order to promote at least some peace of mind, we might glance at the inspection score that may or may not be posted on the window outside of the location to get an idea of how closely the restaurant complies with safety standards. However, these short, cumulative scores are often not an accurate representation of the conditions within the kitchen, and can be severely misleading.
I often find myself passing the time by watching the reality TV show “Kitchen Nightmares,” in which celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey visits failing restaurants to figure out what the root of their problems are and works with the owners to fix these issues and improve the location overall. But when the cameramen show us the dead rats behind the stoves, the cross-contaminated containers, and the spoiled meat in the broken freezer that the owner still claims is “good,” I begin to wonder how these restaurants are still allowed to remain in business, and more curiously, why the inspection score is surprisingly decent.
It seems that the main reason that routine health inspections are not efficient in promoting a restaurant atmosphere that meets state health and safety standards is that there is a general lack of enforcement; by this, I mean that there are no measures to ensure that repeat violations do not happen. If inspectors were able to impose fines and long-term restaurant closings and if they were thoroughly backed by environmental health management, this would not be as big of a problem and it would encourage restaurant owners and managers to keep their facilities running in optimal conditions. As it turns out, repeat violations account for more than half of all violations, which alone should be enough evidence to conclude that routine inspections, which only happen once or twice a year at most establishments, do not work and something needs to be changed about the way in which they are carried out.
One rather disturbing aspect of health inspections is the fact that, many times, not every violation is documented. When performing these inspections, many specialists are on the lookout for major health code violations, and only address the minor violations if the major ones are nonexistent. Although it’s typically the (very) major violations that make themselves shown in most of the restaurants featured in “Kitchen Nightmares,” it definitely strikes me as sketchy that inspections do not hold equal weight for all restaurants; this practice could lead to a low-risk location being inspected much more thoroughly than a high-risk one, when logically the opposite should be happening. Contrarily, while some specialists claim that they only document critical violations and let the noncritical ones slide, there are a handful that admit that they don’t always document the critical ones either. Even more shocking is the fact that specialists aren’t required to report it when they are driven to the point of having to temporarily shut down a restaurant; Ramsey’s TV show highlights only a small portion of the restaurants that receive a critical violation warning each day, yet we rarely hear about the 230 restaurants that are shut down each year. Why? Because “if the restaurant is closed, the food is not being served,” says Gary Hagy, Director of the Health Department’s Division of Food and Environmental Services as a justification for specialists not being required to report shutdowns. However, this flawed reasoning does not account for the fact that customers’ health may have been jeopardized prior to the shutdown, because the food was still being served to them at the time that the conditions still posed a health violation. And while many shutdowns are due to things that are out of the restaurant owner’s or manager’s control such as water main breaks, power outages, or fires, the possibility that a customer may have previously been exposed to salmonella or E. coli in a restaurant and will never be notified about the fact that the restaurant was shut down as a result is certainly problematic.
Finally, many believe (justifiably) that inspection scores are not always an accurate representation of the restaurant’s health and safety standards, partly because inspections are performed so infrequently and major changes may have occurred since the previous inspection, and partly because the score given to the facility is so simple and cumulative, often relying on a simple point system or letter grading system. Many inspectors themselves actually believe that the final score is entirely pointless because of this, and because of the fact that all violations, whether critical or noncritical, are weighted the same. One specialist who participated in a study on inspection trends stated that “a place could have cooling, reheating… violations and still have the same points marked off as if they had a dirty floor and a cracked base coating,” implying that even the specialists themselves don’t believe that their work is to be taken seriously due to these weak and faulty grading standards.
We’ve all eaten commercially at some point or another, and a few of us may have even gotten food poisoning from one, whether it be from a food truck on the side of the road or a five-star restaurant in the city. Personally, I’d prefer to not think about the possible cross-contamination that might be happening in the back kitchen of the McDonald’s, because in certain cases, ignorance is definitely bliss. However, this does not mean that I don’t believe that the health and safety inspection information shouldn’t be readily available. Furthermore, if inspections were performed more often and more thoroughly, and the scoring system was altered, I might be able to walk into a restaurant with greater peace of mind.