Transparency on county food inspections

March 1, 2015

Recent accolades attributed to the Oakland County Health Division's food safety program are a good indicator that health standards are being strictly maintained at the more than 4,700 restaurants operating in the county, but we feel the officials are falling short when it comes to providing easy access to restaurant inspection reports, especially when we note other local counties provide easy Internet access to their restaurant inspections.

Under Michigan's food law, restaurants with a fixed location that operate year around must be inspected bi-annually. As the entity in Oakland County responsible for restaurant inspections, the health division's environmental health food safety program conducts more than 18,000 inspections each year. That figure includes the required bi-annual inspections at fixed restaurants, as well as follow-up inspections, along with inspections at other food establishments, such as mobile food vendors, pop-ups and temporary establishments. Yet, none of those inspection reports are currently accessible through an online source. That means anyone who wishes to obtain an inspection report must file a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request with the county to view a report.

Oakland County spokesman Bill Mullan said the county doesn't have plans to make inspection reports available online, something that the surrounding counties of Macomb, Livingston, Wayne and Washtenaw already do. Why? Because doing so, according to Mullan, could unintentionally damage a good restaurant's reputation if the public doesn't fully understand the reports – a concern that has been echoed by the Michigan Restaurant Association (MRA).

Officials with the organization have said it is critical that the public understands what information is provided in the reports before making judgements about an establishment. We agree.

However, one may only consider the thousands of thriving restaurants outside of Oakland County that continue to enjoy solid reputations, despite inspection reports being available at the touch of a computer, iPad or smartphone. 

Anyone even remotely familiar with the food service industry is probably aware that inspection violations – at least minor infractions – are very common and rarely overlooked by inspectors. For example, instances of inadequate paper towel in a restroom, improper labeling of perishables, or an employee not having a lid on their personal beverage container while working, are all possible inspection violations that could end up on an inspection report. Further, such violations may be corrected almost instantly, but are still required to be noted on an inspection report. 

There's no doubt that lumping such examples together with more serious violations wouldn't be a fair and accurate representation of a particular restaurant. Still, we disagree with the county's logic behind the decision to keep such reports hidden from the dining public. In fact, we believe that added transparency to the process would only serve to strengthen the reputation of good restaurants by putting to rest rumors and arbitrary restaurant reviews that can be posted by anyone with access to any of the multitude of websites, such as yelp.com, urbanspoon.com or others.

Additionally, we believe changes to the state's food law already address some of the concerns about how the public interprets restaurant inspections. Prior to October of 2012, violations were categorized as "critical" or "non-critical" violations. Those categories have been restructured to the point of nearing doublespeak, with violations now categorized as "core," "priority," and "priority core" violations. A change that was fully endorsed by the MRA.

While we also feel it is worth noting that providing inspection reports online in Oakland County would likely be a large undertaking considering the number of reports conducted each year, we believe the county is well capable of meeting the task.

Macomb County, with just 15.5 full-time employees, conducted about 5,800 inspections in 2014, with results available on the county's health department's website. Wayne County's health department, which conducts inspections for the entire county with the exception of those located inside the city of Detroit, conducted more than 8,800 inspections. In Livingston County, three full-time sanitarians conducted more than 1,000 inspections in 2014. Both Wayne and Livingston counties provide reports online through the third-party website at www.swordsolutions.com.

Considering Oakland County routinely bills itself as the center for high-tech innovation, and has received numerous awards for its work in the information technology field, we believe it is incumbent upon the county to provide easy access to online inspection results. It should be easy for inspectors to upload and update, and we trust those seeking the information online will be able to comprehend the information in the reports.

Although we can understand the concerns of unintentional harm to restaurant owners, we feel the public's right to easily access the health information contained in the reports outweighs those concerns.

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