Thursday, November 16, 2006

Talking dirty

Scandalous food-safety conditions came to light this week in Chicago and Philadelphia, but restaurants there are looking like potential victims rather than the culprits. Government hearings held almost simultaneously in the cities left little doubt that eateries and their patrons are facing a significant health risk because neither municipality has hired enough safety inspectors.

Chicago, for instance, has a field force of 46 people to monitor 15,500 food outlets. To inspect each of them once a year, the germ chasers would have to hit 1.3 establishments per day. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that a place be checked every four months, which would mean inspecting five outlets in an eight-hour day, week in and week out.

Instead, an official reportedly told a city-council committee that the inspectors get to about 6,000 restaurants and food stores per year, and those tend to be the places most in need of scrutiny. Despite the high management turnover of the restaurant business, the other places are left alone because no infractions were detected during a prior visit, which could have come more than a year beforehand.

In 1982, noted a Chicago Sun Times story on the city council hearings, the health department had 150 sanitation inspectors, and presumably far fewer restaurants to check.

Still, the situation in the Windy City seems preferable to conditions in Philadelphia, judging from coverage of the city council hearings held there on Thursday. Officials noted that the City of Brotherly Love has 15,000 restaurants and just 32 safety inspectors.

The industry has long bemoaned certain aspects of sanitation inspections. In particular, chains and multiple-restaurant operators complain that the regulations tend to vary from one jurisdiction to another, or even from inspector to inspector. The lack of consistency makes training that much more difficult.

And then there’s the lack of knowledge shown by some inspectors. The ideal safety guardian, restaurateurs assert, would be someone who wants to help them protect customers. That means teaching operators the right procedures and processes, instead of merely playing cop and walloping them with sanctions or a bad grade. Yet the inspectors are often as green as bread mold, and know far less than the restaurateurs they should be counseling.

It looks as if restaurateurs in Chicago and Philly—and, presumably, other areas—can put another item atop their gripe list.

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