By Kevin Huebschman/For CU-CitizenAccess.org
A proposal to require restaurant owners to post a color-coded placard based on their latest health inspection results has raised concern among some county board members.
While it is common throughout Illinois and throughout the United States for restaurants to have inspections posted at the restaurants or publicized in newspapers or on the Web, some county board members worried more about the economic impact on restaurant owners.
“We don’t want to put these people out of business because they’re out of compliance on a given day, because things change in a restaurant all the time,” said Champaign County Board Chairman Alan Kurtz (D-Dist 7) at a board meeting last month. “If we stick up a poster for 30 days, saying that (the restaurants) were out of compliance, they could lose a lot of business.”
Kurtz and the Champaign County Board met at a study session to review the proposal put forth by city-county health staff.
The County Board of Health met Tuesday and asked that the health department draft the proposal into an ordinance as well as consider including enforcement measures, such as fines for not posting the placards or for repeat violations, said Stan James on Wednesday (R-Dist 2), who is the liaison to the county board of health
“If we pass that and we have no teeth, what good is it,” James said.
As the regulations in the county stand now, food establishments are not required to publicly post their health inspection results. This could change if the county board, as well as the district’s board of health, agrees to move ahead with the proposed change.
Though the health district posts a list of restaurants it inspects each month on its website, the list does not indicate restaurant scores or clearly denote failures. Instead, failures are noted as “re-inspection required” or “suspended”.
But at a joint meeting of the boards of health last September, Jim Roberts, director for environmental health for the public health district, which works jointly to oversee all city and county inspections, introduced six options for consideration. The proposal came after CU-CitizenAccess.org published for a year on the Web the scores and reports of restaurants that failed inspections.
The boards jointly agreed to move forward with the idea of using a visible placard, highlighting the status and performance indicators of the individual restaurant.
“The object was color, so it grabbed attention,” Roberts said. “It also communicates compliance status.”
In this proposal, an establishment scoring between 36 to 100 would receive a green placard, which would also include details of the inspection, to be placed in view of the public. A restaurant getting a score of 35 fails.
Establishments scoring between 0 and 35 points – a failing score – would receive a yellow placard until they passed the required re-inspection.
Locations receiving a negative score are shut down and receive a red card until passing re-inspection. In both cases, a successful re-inspection would result in a green placard for the establishment. A failing health inspection score requires a re-inspection within 30 days, though often health inspectors will revisit a closed restaurant sooner.
Roberts indicated that this method was received favorably by establishment operators as well.
“As long as they could see some place that was green (on the reports), they were going in,” he said.
While board members voiced various concerns over aspects of the plan, the major worry of the board was on the effect a yellow placard might have on a location’s business, even though that meant the business had failed its inspection, but had not been closed.
At February’s county board study session, Giraldo Rosales (D – Dist. 8) agreed that leaving a yellow sign up could result in a significant loss of a month’s revenue, and that could be staggering to the restaurant, but it had to be weighed with the alternative.
“A life is worth a lot more than the revenue of a month or two months, or however much it takes a restaurant to serve our community,” he said.
He also added a concern for visitors who might sue one of the local governing bodies because of food illness
Christopher Alix (D- Dist.10), said the difference in a yellow placard and a green mean little to a customer seeking to make an informed decision.
“At the cleanest, safest restaurant in town – that’s never had a negative on its health inspection – all it takes is one piece of bad shellfish, and you’re gonna get sick,” he said.
However, most of the board agreed that restaurants repeatedly getting docked for the same violations should be held to a stricter standard than those that corrected their mistakes.
Another concern raised during the meeting was Roberts’ ability to enforce any new regulations such as posting the placard, since he said his department “has no teeth” in the county outside the cities and townships.
As an example, Roberts pointed to the regulation that all restaurants must have a “choking poster” , or an infographic of the Heimlich Maneuver, displayed in a prominent place in restaurants, yet most don’t, and he can do little about it as there are no specific consequences written into the ordinance.
“(We) need to spell out what the enforcement part would be and then have consequences associated with that,” he said.
The ability to enforce the program is an issue for the health district, Roberts said, as he sees no point in creating a program that his district would struggle to use.
His ultimate goal, he said is public accessibility to the inspection reports.
“Citizens should be able to see this information before they begin dining,” he said.
Roberts said that he would work with the state’s attorneys to draft the ordinances and then plan to host open houses so that restaurant owners and others could review the notices.