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Chef Corey Boadwine makes a hamburger at McNally's Irish Pub in Sioux Falls on Nov. 19, 2011. (Aaron Rosenblatt/Journal staff)

Once a week, the Siouxland Environmental Health Department in Sioux Falls posts its newest batch of inspection scores online.

Food safety scores for everything from fast-food chains to Chinese restaurants to deli counters to five-star bistros are available at a click of a button, along with descriptions of each violation and how it affects public health.

"People really like it," said LuAnn Ford, consumer protection public health manager.

The city of Sioux Falls, which has a contract with the state Department of Health to conduct restaurant inspections within city limits, has been posting its results to the Web since 2006.

Many communities nationwide also taken the digital leap, a fact that South Dakota officials used to justify a promised transition from paper to online records later this year.

"It is being done in other jurisdictions," said Doneen Hollingsworth, who has been secretary of South Dakota's health department since 1995. "A lot of restaurants have presence in more than one state. This isn't new."

Elsewhere, accessibility goes even further, with health departments requiring restaurants to display the entirety of their most recent inspection report in plain view of the public. In North Carolina, establishments must post a letter grade that corresponds to their inspection score and likewise in New York City, where restaurant owners face fines of up to $1,000 for refusing to display their grades.

Public health officials agree that it is not just the public at large that benefits from having the results of restaurant inspections readily available.

"The facilities are more aware of their scores and how that score can impact their business," Ford said. "It's actually an asset for all of us, not just the public who's out there looking at the score."

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In Fort Collins, Colo., it took two local newspapers requesting weekly reports on restaurant inspections to get Larimer County to start posting its reports online, something they've now been doing since 1999, said Jim Devore, an environmental health specialist with Larimer County Health & Environment.

"We were getting a lot of calls not only from newspaper reporters but also from the public when they saw the inspection information printed in the paper," Devore said. "What we ended up finding is the public wants to get an idea, wants to get that inspection information."

At the outset of online posting, the department was on the receiving end of some blowback from restaurant owners who were concerned about their inspection scores being so easily available to the public, Devore said. The newspapers in Loveland and Fort Collins still get a weekly list of which restaurants were inspected and what their ratings were, which they print in their Saturday papers.

"Happy or not, it holds them a little more accountable on the basic sanitation," Devore said of restaurants. "It's good business to have a good health inspection. It's bad for business to do poorly on that end. The general public wants clean, safe restaurants."

Like many other online databases, Larimer County's includes a disclaimer of the limitations of the data: "Please remember that on any given day, even a restaurant with an ‘Excellent' rating could have a failure in their food safety practices that could lead to a food-borne illness."

Devore said to get an accurate picture of a restaurant's sanitation level, consumers can't just look at one inspection report. Their website includes inspection data going back six years, as well as information on how long each facility has been open under its current management.

"If you've got a facility that you're only in once a year, that's a pretty short snapshot of what they're doing," Devore said.

The details of where points were lost are also important, Devore said. A full-service restaurant, for example, that rates "average" on the county's

inspection matrix can still be a good, safe restaurant if it doesn't have any high-risk critical violations.

"It's not uncommon to find some foods that are supposed to be held at less than 41 degrees at more than 41 degrees. If you have a product that's at 45, it doesn't meet the requirements. It's a violation, but that's a whole lot different than if you have food at 60 degrees and folks that are having bare-hand contact," Devore said. "Just to look at the score and say ‘that's all I need to know' - that doesn't work very well in all cases."

His 6-1/2 full-time employees are responsible for visiting each of the county's 1,700 food service establishments two to four times a year, as well as child care facilities and schools. Inspection reports are still filled out on paper and then manually entered in the database by clerical staff.

"It's an investment," Devore said of the staff time required to keep the scores up-to-date. "With the budgets being tight, it's hard to keep staffing levels where they're at."

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In Taney County, Missouri, home to the tourist attractions of Branson, particular effort is made to celebrate those establishments that score well on their inspections.

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The first thing people see when accessing the county's online restaurant inspection database is "The A-List," an aggregate of all restaurants that passed their inspections in the past two weeks. Laura Jahn, environmental health division supervisor for the Taney County Health Department, said that was a conscious decision made by county health officials last year.

"Most people who look at restaurant inspections are looking for the worst, what's the grossest, but we didn't want to do that," Jahn said. "We wanted to focus on the positive."

Being on the "A-List" has also become a source of pride for restaurant owners, many of whom were wary when the county began posting restaurant scores online in 2009. In addition, the county compiled a "Super A-List" at the end of 2010 to recognize the establishments that had passed every inspection on the first try that year.

But from a public health perspective, Jahn said one of the biggest impacts of the program has been a notable decrease over the last year in the number of site visits her inspectors have had to do to gain compliance. The county also implemented a $50 revisit fee earlier this year.

"That's a good thing," Jahn said. "That means we're going into restaurants less. They're either passing on the first time or they need fewer revisits."

Taney County conducts routine inspections three times a year at all full-service restaurants and "revisits" after 10 days to ensure restaurants that failed have fixed all critical violations. Restaurants with scores below 70 are revisited after just three days, with those scoring less than 60 subject to re-inspection in 24 hours or temporary closure.

With millions of visitors every year, Branson and Taney County also have a lot to lose if there were a serious outbreak of Hepatitis A or salmonella, Jahn acknowledges. Five full-time inspectors are dedicated to the city of Branson alone, inspecting restaurants as well as pools, tattoo and massage parlors.

"It doesn't take much for a rumor to spread," Jahn said. "It is important that we protect the public and the name of Branson for everyone's sake - not just the tourists, but everyone who lives here and works here, too."

But she said every community should take food safety seriously, whether or not they are a tourist destination.

"It's our responsibility to ensure those guidelines are taking place in that restaurant. We're going in to make sure things are done correctly," Jahn said. "We consider ourselves educators first and foremost."

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

 

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This interactive map shows all restaurant inspections near Rapid City through the end of September, according to the data provided by the state Oct. 26. Red markers indicate restaurants with scores below 80, with yellow markers between 80 and 85, blue between 85 and 90, purple between 90 and 95, and green over 95.