South Dakotans will have to wait until sometime early next year to check up online on the cleanliness of their favorite restaurants.

A state Department of Health official said delays in the development of a new software system will cause the state to miss its original goal of having a new website up and running for the public by the end of 2011.

The website will provide access to recent health inspection reports and scores for South Dakota restaurants.

"I do not have an anticipated timeframe on this function as it is all part of the larger licensing/inspection system that is still under development," said Clark Hepper, administrator of the Office of Health Protection. "Hopefully, it takes place the first quarter of the year."

Currently, the restaurant inspection scores for all cities other than Sioux Falls are available to the public only by request from the state Office of Health Protection, which maintains the records in an archaic system of paper forms and old databases. Records requests can take weeks to complete, leaving diners in the dark about critical safety violations at popular establishments across the Black Hills and South Dakota.

Other communities across the country, including Sioux Falls and Fort Collins, Colo., have long posted the public records on easily accessible, searchable websites, while some have taken it a step further by requiring restaurants to post their most recent score in their window.

South Dakota officials signed a $151,000 contract in August with GL Solutions of Bend, Ore. to develop the new electronic licensing and inspection system for the Office of Health Protection, which oversees the state's food service establishments, as well as campgrounds, hotels and vacation homes.

A federal grant will cover the cost of the digitization of records and development of software, which will also allow restaurant owners to renew their licenses online and inspectors to score restaurants electronically. Hepper has said he plans to require the state's inspectors to upload their reports at the end of every day, if not sooner, with two years of data available online for free to the public.

One benefit of the delay is it affords the restaurant industry the opportunity to get involved in the development of the system. Representatives of the South Dakota Retailers Association met with the health department this month to discuss plans for the system and how it will be rolled out.

Association executive director Shawn Lyons said the association will work with the state to put together a work group of industry representatives who can provide input into the process. Also, the association will keep its members up to date on the changes through newsletters and webcasts.

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"We certainly support any initiative that educates the public and ensures confidence in the safety of dining out," Lyons said.

But he said it's important the system is designed in a way that is fair to restaurants, and accurately shows any improvements that have been made since the time of the inspection.

"In order for public posting to be meaningful, the records need to be accurate, timely and easy to understand for the consumer," Lyons said. "Food safety violations that have been corrected, that needs to be acknowledged to indicate there is no longer a problem."

Contact Barbara Soderlin at 394-8417 or barbara.soderlin@rapidcityjournal.com.

Contact Emilie Rusch at 394-8453 or emilie.rusch@rapidcityjournal.com.

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