When the El Patron Mexican restaurant closed without warning last August, diners wondered what had happened to the popular downtown eatery known for huge burritos and homemade salsa. It took a call to the South Dakota Department of Health to find out.
The restaurant had failed two consecutive health inspections and had a history of critical violations, those that can endanger the health of the people who eat there.
But with no state system in place to inform the public about problems at restaurants, people kept on eating at El Patron, not knowing inspectors had found numerous ongoing problems with the temperature of food, as well as violations including no soap at a kitchen hand-washing station and condensation from a cooling unit dripping onto meat.
In fact, the restaurant continued operating for several weeks even as the state made plans to try to suspend or revoke its license.
The state Department of Health, hampered by tight budgets, uses an archaic, paper-based system to track restaurant health inspections, and the inspections are not made public except upon request - a request that took weeks to process when the Journal asked for copies of recent inspections of Rapid City restaurants.
In contrast, other states and the city of Sioux Falls use computer databases to store and process inspection reports and publish the results of the inspections for free online, including the violations. Some cities and states go as far as requiring restaurants to post their inspection scores on site, giving diners easy access to the information and motivating restaurants to fix problems.
But in Rapid City and elsewhere in South Dakota outside Sioux Falls, a diner who wants to know whether a restaurant has had serious safety violations has to ask the restaurant management or file a written request with the office in Pierre.
Or, in the case of El Patron, simply wait for a restaurant to close on its own after a year of problems.
Reports obtained by the Journal showed multiple critical violations in several restaurants in Rapid City in the past year, as well as plenty of unappetizing minor violations.
Inspectors combing Rapid City kitchens discovered dirty walls, moldy tomatoes, food stored uncovered, foods heated improperly and stored at unsafe temperatures, such as raw chicken out on a counter at 60 degrees, and even a grease trap full of dead cockroaches.
Most restaurants in Rapid City have few violations. Department of Health records show that out of 321 establishments with active licenses inspected through the end of September, only one in five scored below a 90 out of 100 possible points.
Two Rapid City restaurants inspected in that period scored below an 80: the Imperial Chinese Restaurant, at 702 E. North St., and the Rodeway Inn, at 2208 Mount Rushmore Road. A restaurant must score at least an 80 and have fewer than four critical violations to pass a routine unannounced inspection. El Patron had scored as low as a 69 while it was open.
The state follows up with failing restaurants with a planned visit in which the restaurant must score an 85 or better with no critical violations. If the restaurant fails that inspection, the state can begin the process of holding an administrative hearing to determine if the licenses should be suspended or revoked. That process had started with El Patron when it abruptly shut its doors. The Journal was unable to contact the former owners for comment.
The state Department of Health is responsible for the licensing and food safety of every restaurant, coffee shop, short-order cafe, catering kitchen, bakery and deli in every community in South Dakota other than Sioux Falls - some 3,500 in all.
State statute mandates food safety inspections twice a year; problems trigger more frequent visits.
The detailed reports inspectors generate are available to the public only by request from the state Office of Health Protection, a small agency that also oversees the licensing of the state's campgrounds, hotels, vacation homes and environmental health issues, including mold and indoor air quality.
Food safety inspections are conducted around the state every day, with the handwritten reports sent to the state office weekly - by mail.
Doneen Hollingsworth, the state's Secretary of Health since 1995, said the department does its best with the resources available.
"As a department, we only get about 8 percent of our funding from the general fund. It buys things like childhood vaccines, runs part of our tuberculosis program," Hollingsworth said. "Those are the decisions that we have to make."
But that may be about to change.
State officials are poised to make a major investment to improve the openness of the inspection program, joining communities nationwide in posting all inspection results online for public review.
A $150,000 federal grant will digitize the state's entire restaurant inspection program, allowing restaurant owners to renew their licenses online, inspectors to score restaurants electronically and people to view their favorite restaurant's results within a matter of hours, said Clark Hepper, administrator of the state Office of Health Protection.
"If you wanted to find out what the Pizza Hut in Rapid City scored, you would be able to go online and see two years of reports, and you'd see the score and the actual violations," Hepper said.
State officials signed a contract in August with GL Solutions of Bend, Ore., to provide the new electronic licensing and inspection system, for a total of $151,063, Hepper said. The price tag also includes an $18,000 annual maintenance fee for server space and programming through June 30, 2015.
Hepper, who has overseen the Office of Health Protection for four years, said the benefit of the new electronic system will be two-fold: increased efficiency for his staff and more information for the public. The current programs that store the state's restaurant inspection data are about 17 years old.
The new system should also allow a quicker state response to problem restaurants. Hepper 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.
The goal is to have the new system up and running by Dec. 31.
"I imagine there could be some backlash from the industry, but this information is public knowledge based on public record," Hepper said. "We always need to be checked. We need to be held accountable on how we operate. Some people may not like it, but if it forces them into new positive habits throughout their operations, I think that's a good thing."
The state is moving forward with the new inspection and online records system without input from the state's restaurant industry, whose representative said his group has not been consulted about the type of computerized records system being bought.
"We would certainly welcome the conversation with the Department" of Health, said Shawn Lyons, executive director of the South Dakota Retailers Association. "We're always open to any improvements that the state wants to see in the program. At the same time, it's important that they're mindful of the industry's concerns and expectations, as well."
He and a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association both said their industry is cautiously supportive of increased transparency. They said inspections have an important role in public safety but that the dining public needs to understand that the inspection reports are just "a snapshot in time," as Lyons put it, and not a full picture of the ongoing quality, cleanliness and safety at a restaurant.
"The thing to keep in mind when you're viewing these reports is that it sometimes can give a misperception of operational quality," Lyons said, depending on the day the inspector arrives.
The industry believes the process works best when it is educational for the restaurant operator, not a way to scare operators with public exposure.
"You educate the restaurant operators and then sanction if need be," Lyons said. "That partnership approach really gets better results from the restaurants."
Lyons said it is imperative that the format in which the results are reported give an accurate picture of what the scores do and do not mean. If a person reading the report is left to guess at what a given score means or can't discern whether a violation is a serious health hazard, the reports can do more harm than good.
"You can cause a lot of damage to a restaurant operator," Lyons said.
He said if problems are going to be noted, improvements also should be, because a bad score could keep patrons away long after the problem has been fixed.
"You have to keep in mind that in a lot of small towns in South Dakota, that restaurant is the social mecca of activity for the community," Lyons said. "None of us want to see a business close in our small towns."
Some restaurant operators will probably question the need to make inspection reports more readily available in South Dakota. Lyons said he doesn't hear complaints from the industry or the public about the way the system works now.
"I think the process that's in place today of accessing those reports has worked," Lyons said. "Right now, it's a matter of public record."
Lyons said there is a strong food-service safety-training program in place. The state requires each food-service establishment in the state to have at least one person on staff who has passed the state's eight-hour ServSafe food service safety training program. The program was established in 1997 with involvement from the restaurant industry, Lyons said.
"It's the industry standard in food-safety training," he said, based on the FDA's model food safety code.
Lyons said the fact that restaurant-related health crises are few and far between speaks for itself.
"You tell me what was the last major outbreak of salmonella or E. coli in South Dakota," Lyons said. "The restaurant industry in South Dakota takes very seriously the inspections that take place in their establishment and the product that gets served. These businesses themselves have a vested interest in making sure their project meets the standard their customers expect."
Increased transparency of inspections in other states has helped make restaurants safer, said Catherine Adams Hutt, a registered dietician and consultant to the National Restaurant Association.
Cities where inspection reports are posted on site or reported publicly "have seen some modicum of improvement in some facilities that may not otherwise be motivated to do so."
She said she opposes transparency only when inspections are presented in a way where they "are not necessarily representative of what's going on in the facility in the long term."
Cities and states that have gone as far as requiring restaurants to post their inspection score on-site, such as some in New York, Pennsylvania and California, have also invested the resources to make the inspection process fairer, she said.
"If a facility does not get an A grade in New York City, they can be re-inspected" quickly, she said, and the new and improved score will be posted instead.
"The timeliness of that is really important to restaurants," Adams Hutt said.
Overall, she said, transparency helps everyone as long as inspections are conducted and results posted in a fair way.
"Most restaurants are really trying to do the right thing anyway, notwithstanding the health inspection, because nobody wants to make a customer sick. Having a sick customer is not good business," Adams Hutt said. "Everyone wants the health inspection to focus on the real risks. We stand behind the notion that we want transparency, our customers want transparency. What the customers want, the customers are going to get."
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