Saturday, May 21, 2011

Inspections of local restaurants criticized by San Luis Obispo county grand jury

By Bob Cuddy |

The county’s enforcement of restaurant code violations is “minimal,” and it does not have enough deterrents in place to keep restaurants as safe as they could be, according to a report by the county’s civil grand jury.

Civil grand jury reports are not legally binding and only act to inform the public and government of the issues they highlight.

In a 17-page report released Thursday called “What’s Cooking,” grand jurors described harried inspectors who feel they have too little time to do their jobs, as well as an inadequate inspection system that does not bring in as much money as it should.

In its first look at restaurant inspections since 2005, the grand jury wrote that the number of retail food outlets has jumped to 1,801 from 1,450 — 880 of which are restaurants.

The county’s Environmental Health Services has one half-time and nine full-time employees to inspect all the food outlets, which include bars, farmers markets and temporary events, among others, on top of swimming pools, water systems and other facilities.

EHS tries to scrutinize restaurants at least once every nine months, and the grand jury reported that its inspectors spend 11 percent of their time on restaurant inspections and reinspections.

In the past year, EHS conducted 1,131 inspections, of which 98 were reinspections. The venue being scrutinized is supposed to pay for these examinations, but 97 of the 98 reinspections were undertaken for free.

Fees cover only 75 percent of the costs, the grand jury wrote.

EHS Director Curtis Batson believes that “it would be a heavy burden for restaurants if EHS were to impose more fees or fines,” the grand jury wrote. He prefers to educate vendors, jurors wrote.

In this, he is at odds with “the majority of (his) inspectors,” who believe charging for reinspections and imposing fines, on top of “persuasive communication,” to be the best means to achieve compliance, the jurors wrote.

Dissatisfaction from inspectors is sprinkled throughout the report. For example, they believe that the scoring system used to determine degrees of violation “inadequately reflects the condition of the restaurant at the time of inspection.”

They also told the grand jury that “the number of restaurant inspections included in their monthly assignments is difficult to achieve.”

“In general, the inspectors were concerned about the low number of reinspections, given their importance,” the grand jury wrote.

The grand jury also said restaurant reports should be more effectively disseminated to the general public and posted in a user-friendly way on the county’s website, for example. They quoted inspectors as saying such publication “would help the public evaluate restaurants.”

Among many other conclusions:

• Routine inspections are unannounced and conducted during business hours.

• Inspectors look for improper holding temperatures of potentially harmful food; hazardous food; inadequate cooking, cooling, or heating; poor hygiene of food handlers; contaminated equipment; and food from unsafe sources.

• Chain restaurants generally have better food safety scores.

• “Restaurants in older buildings, especially near a creek, are more susceptible to infestation.”

Among other recommendations:

• Restaurants should post their inspection results in a place where patrons can see them.

• Food safety instruction signs should be posted in Spanish and English.

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