Problems with Restaurant Food Safety Grading

restaurant plating

Food Code definitions become the first problem to address in universality.

In the 1990s the FDA created a Food Code.
“The Food Code consists of model requirements for safeguarding public health and ensuring food is unadulterated and honestly presented when offered to the consumer. This model is offered for adoption by local, state, and federal governmental jurisdictions…”

As recently as 2013, the FDA encouraged its state, local, tribal, and territorial partners to adopt the latest version of the FDA Food Code. Decades later, we still struggle nationally with a huge variance in the application of a universal food code. Some states, and even some municipalities within states, have developed their own.

Dr. Stueven’s Dining Grades has reviewed hundreds of websites and found nearly as many variations in food codes. One municipality does an unannounced inspection and then does another inspection literally minutes later with corrections made, publishing both results. Another municipality counts every time any employee fails to use gloves when handling ready to eat food as a separate violation leading to multiple demerits for the same violation item. This variance creates enormous problems for multi-state or multi-municipality restaurant chains in standardizing training and interpreting inspection results.

Food safety inspections are infrequent.

Nearly every municipal website offers a disclaimer that inspections offer only a limited picture of restaurant food safety. In fact, an inspection often takes less than an hour. That’s not a very fair picture. While the disclaimer is true and some municipalities plan to do inspections twice a year on restaurants with higher risk of food borne illness, unfortunately many municipalities have difficulty inspecting even annually.

Nationwide municipality budget cuts have threatened public safety for years. The potential reduced frequency and thoroughness of restaurant inspections puts a greater burden on the public. The Spokane Washington Spokesman-Review reported that budget cuts are threatening, among other things, restaurant inspections. “In the past eight years, the Spokane Regional Health District has cut more than 40 jobs”, said Administrator Torney Smith. “On any given day, nine food safety inspectors fan out across Spokane County conducting surprise visits to about 2,300 businesses that serve food.”

This story is repeated across America.
A report by the Chicago Inspector General claims,“43.9 percent of the 8,123 restaurants that the Chicago Department of Health deemed as “high risk” received their required second yearly visit.”

The implication of both of these reports is that there are not enough health inspectors. The data we have acquired at Dr. Stueven’s Dining Grades with over 3.3 Million inspections supports that notion. There is wide variability in application of the rules.

In our discussions with restaurant owners, restaurant chain executives, and others in the hospitality industry, the thoroughness of food safety inspections varies remarkably. This is also discussed in an article in the Business Insider regarding New York City’s restaurant grading system, “How strictly these specific rules are enforced (or noticed) on any given inspection varies by each individual health inspector.”

Our national food safety grading system has problems. In my last blog in this series we discuss solutions.


Author: Dr. Harlan Stueven, MD

Harlan Stueven M.D. is a Board-Certified Emergency physician with sub-specialization in Environmental Toxicology and Board Certification in Medical Toxicology. Starting his career in the USAF, he served as a Flight Surgeon and Environmental Health Consultant Physician where one of his duties was monitoring food safety. In his nearly 40-year practice, he treated a range of medical, surgical and poisoning emergencies. He has been a Medical Director and/or Chairman of several hospital-based Emergency Medicine Departments, served as the President of Emergency and Environmental Medicine consulting group, a physician group Chief Financial Officer and sat on many national, state and local committees. Dr. Stueven founded Dining Grades and the Dining Safety Alliance to improve food safety by increasing awareness of food borne illness and the formation of partnerships within the food industry. He is a consultant to the Wisconsin Retail Food Establishment Grading Work Group; a Co-investigator in a CDC funded “Evaluation of Health Department Restaurant Inspection Programs” project. He has presented at several National, State and Regional conferences on restaurant grading and food safety. He is an accomplished leader, medical researcher, a champion of process improvement, author, and national and international speaker.

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