What Restaurant Inspections Do—and Do Not—Mean
Sonia Marino is concerned that restaurant inspections are not well understood.
The director of Westbrook’s Public Health Department, Marino has noticed a number of recent stories in the news focusing on restaurants in Connecticut towns with poor inspection results and the risk to public health.
Westbrook has a history of struggling to keep up with food service inspections. When Marino started in January 2015 as Westbrook’s first full-time director of public health in 10 years, the town was facing fall-out from what was previously an entirely part-time public Health Department. Among many other issues was the fact that the town was not conducting in a timely manner state-mandated inspections of food service establishments which, in addition to restaurants, include school cafeterias, food trucks, concession stands, and special events.
The state Department of Public Health (DPH) stepped in, requiring that Westbrook’s inspectors submit a spreadsheet to the state laying out the results of their assessments.
“Because we were intensely looked at by the state, I had to do things differently when I got here,” Marino said. “And one of the things that they requested was that we put in a spreadsheet our inspection reports.”
While the town is no longer required to submit these documents to the state, Marino’s office continues to compile the report for internal use.
“We continue to do this because it helps us realize what we need to concentrate on,” she said.
The document lays out dates of inspections and violations, allowing her department to detect patterns of particular food-safety violations. “It’s a very good tool for us to focus on…our public health education prevention methods,” Marino said.
Education, Marino points out, is a crucial component of public health.
“My husband’s a chef, I’ve worked in restaurants for a very long time. And the whole point with public health is about education and prevention,” she said.
“Our restaurants are inspected regularly. But the point is for me…you want to make sure that when you [the inspector] leave, they’re going to still practice what you may have found an issue with…You need to have that communication, you need to be approachable, you need to be able to explain why you’re citing what you’re citing,” she said. “Making sure that you can communicate with the people in the restaurants and that their communication is key with their workers is huge.”
A story that aired on NBC Connecticut in January zeroed in on inspection reports—which are public records—not being available for potential customers to view online. Ease of public access, the report suggested, would allow the public to get information about restaurants’ practices and help customers avoid those that pose a risk to health.
Marino said she is all for public access, but she’s concerned that lack of education among the public about how inspections are conducted, how restaurants are evaluated, and which violations truly pose a risk to diners will generate more confusion than edification.
One complication is that the Connecticut is transitioning from DPH inspection forms and codes to those of the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While the transition was set to be made no later than Jan. 1, a complete transition to the FDA code has not been made, however. And while Marino praised the DPH for keeping town health departments informed (“The Food Protection Program’s really good about keeping us posted,” she said), one section of FDA codes pertaining to food temperature requirements in storage has been implemented while the remainder of the inspection continues to follow the state standards.
FDA qualifications for registered sanitarians are also different, requiring extensive training sessions for existing inspectors.
The current state system is graded on scale of up to 100, and a score of 80 or below means the establishment fails the inspection. But Marino believes that the score by itself can be deceptive.
A restaurant “could have gotten 96—a great score. They could have had one four-point violation. What if their entire walk-in cooler was completely out of sync? So someone goes online, they see a 96, they think, ‘This is great.’ Or that could be inadequate hand washing. The other thing: The place could be great, clean, get a hundred. All it takes is one sick person coming in when they’re not supposed to come in, and not washing their hands properly to get a lot of people sick.”
An idiosyncrasy of the state form is the grouping of up to seven potential violations under one heading with only one penalty applied. For instance, one grouping of four-point violations—the most severe—is titled “Approved source, wholesome, non-adulterated.” Under that heading is a checklist of five “risk factor items,” including “Approved shellfish, finfish, meat & poultry USDA approved,” and “Food cans in good condition (not dented, rusty, bloated, leaking).” Failure on just one or all five of those items results in the same four points being deducted.
“The whole grading system—there are some places that yes, they need to get a good clean up,” Marino said. “And you can also go into a place that got like a 90 because they’re in a 1920s building. Is that going to hurt people?
“People when you’re in restaurants are so centered on ‘What did I get?…My last inspector gave me 100, why are you giving me a 90?’…They’re worried that it’s going to be in their file. They’ve worked so hard, they’ve come so far,” she continued. “There’s no potentially hazardous food issues or critical issues here. It’s just that maybe that five cracked floor tiles and in the bathroom there’s some stained ceiling—that’s not going to make a restaurant not safe to eat.”
And yet Marino, who is a registered sanitarian and conducts inspections, described herself as tough.
“You can ask the restaurants—I’m in no way easy,” she said. “Because of the restaurant background I have, I pick up on things a lot more quickly than other sanitarians.”
Westbrook’s budget permits Marino to hire only part time for sanitarian positions, and she says she has very high standards, expecting inspectors to be educators in addition to laying down the law.
“I’m very particular with my inspectors,” she said. “I want to make sure that they’re going in and explaining things… I want to make sure I know how they’re inspecting a restaurant.
“They’re great sanitarians,” she said. “They don’t have this I-know-it-all attitude. They know the code. They’re not easy. They are fair. And they cite when they need to cite. But they keep having that conversation. You need to be able to explain this to the restaurateur, the cook, the chef.”
As for putting inspection reports online, Marino said she supports transparency but continues to have concerns about public understanding of what the reports mean. While the state is in the process of transitioning from the DPH inspection system to that of the FDA, it doesn’t make sense to put the information online, she explained. Once the transition is made, she will discuss the benefits and considerations of public online access to inspection reports with the town’s Board of Selectmen.