Editor’s note: The following is a Palm Beach Post report on Florida’s restaurant inspections system.
The temporary closure of the Boca Raton P.F. Chang’s China Bistro has sparked interest in Florida restaurant health inspections. Unlike other states, Florida does not use a letter grading system.
Intead, restaurant patrons are much on their own to figure out how well a restaurant did, or did not, in the state health and sanitary inspection. This report helps you walk through the inspections grading process.
To see how your restaurant scored, go to our online database of restaurant inspections by clicking here.
In New York, Los Angeles and about 60 other jurisdictions, including states such as South Carolina, restaurant goers can quickly see the food safety letter grade displayed in the front window.
If it’s an “A” they’re likely to feel confident that all is well in the kitchen. A “C” could cause them to take their business elsewhere.
It’s a way of giving diners information about restaurants that has its supporters and detractors. But not in Florida, where consumers have to figure it out on their own by looking up or asking for a report.
The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation doesn’t provide letter grades or scores for the 50,000-plus eating establishments its inspectors assess each year. Instead, its division of hotels and restaurants uses a science-based inspection system, DBPR spokeswoman Chelsea Eagle said.
The 53 items on the inspection list are based on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Food Code, which provides minimum sanitation and safety standards for food handling, preparation and storage, Eagle said.
“Grading public food service establishments provides incomplete information on an establishment’s inspection history and may be misleading,” Eagle said.
Restaurant inspection reports are available at myfloridalicense.com or on the free “DBPR Mobile” app for smart phones. The three-tiered system includes high priority violations, which indicate a direct concern related to possible food-borne illness; intermediate violations, which reference an incident that could contribute to a food-borne illness if not corrected; and basic violations, which identify good retail practices.
Many types of bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli and listeria can lurk in food and cause food-borne illness or “food poisoning” resulting in severe vomiting, diarrhea, fever, chills and other symptoms. Viruses and parasites can also be spread through food, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association has fought against letter grades for years, and asserts that grading is not good for the industry or the consumer because it provides only a superficial snapshot.
But some experts disagree and say there is a case to be made for a letter grading system.
Kevin Murphy, a department chairman at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management and a former restaurant manager, said that he studied the impact of letter grades in Los Angeles, which began in 1998, and New York, in place since 2010. He found there was a lot of resistance initially from restaurant associations and businesses about the posting of letter grades.
“Then later, the results were not as bad as they thought, and restaurants that were performing well liked having it posted. People liked seeing it. Those that were not doing so well were forced to clean up their act,” Murphy said.
“Letter grades are not a priority in Florida. One of the reasons is that Florida has a statewide inspection system. The counties cannot change things on their own. If you look at places where letter grades are enforced, they tend to be states where there is local municipal control,” Murphy said.
“Letter grade posting is not a panacea for restaurant health concerns, but it is a more efficient way to communicate to the public than posting on a website,” Murphy said.
Murphy said his research has shown that large chains are less likely to have critical violations. The chains often have their own inspectors to ensure standards are being followed and to supplement government inspections.
“McDonald’s, for example, has resources to create standards and they are fairly consistent about their standards,” Murphy said. “They are a bigger target. Getting sued is one thing. They don’t want to end up in the news.”
Managers of chain, sit-down restaurants receive bonuses based on their performance, and the restaurant’s cleanliness is among the items they are judged on, Murphy said. Some chains require a minimum cleaning score for a manager to receive any bonus at all.
David Plunkett, an attorney with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said, “Reports are confusing, but if you have a letter grade, it gives consumers something they can use to make a decision.
“It lets the consumer evaluate a restaurant at the door before they go in to purchase food. It is much better than having to plan your evening around a couple of hours at some website trying to figure out what the report means, then deciding which restaurant you want to go to,” Plunkett said.
“The most important thing is it really creates a strong incentive for the restaurants to do their best on food safety so their customers will know their restaurant is a good place to bring their family,” Plunkett said.
Geoff Luebkemann, vice president of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, said Florida’s inspection system has been highly effective and resulted in a 90 percent decline in food-borne illnesses in restaurants in the last 15 years.
“The best way to judge food safety and sanitation is to read the inspection report,” Luebkemann said.
Cities in other states where letter grades have been implemented were often those where regulatory authority was failing. The media exposed the shortcomings.
“The media typically loves grades. It simplifies a very complicated issue, which is the food safety conditions in a public food service establishment,” Luebkemann said.
“Assuming the problem we are trying to solve is to provide consumers useful information to make a purchasing decision, grades fall short of filling that need,” Luebkemann said. “Conditions can change at a restaurant dramatically for better or worse 10 minutes after the inspector leaves. The grade on the door may have no bearing at the actual moment. A trend or multiple data points is more reliable rather than a snapshot in time reduced to a letter.”
In Florida, a restaurant where the inspector sees evidence of live rodents will be closed until the condition is resolved. But in New York City, Luebkemann said, a restaurant could have rodents and still receive an “A.”
Under normal circumstances, Florida restaurants receive two unannounced inspections per year. If DBPR receives a complaint, an inspector will be sent. Restaurants with a history of non-compliance are inspected three times a year, and those linked to a food-borne illness are inspected four times a year.
“The association is not anti-regulation. It is not anti-consumer information. We are not trying to hide anything. We are against any sort of system that does not tell the whole story and does not provide comprehensive reliable consumer information,” Luebkemann said.
Red flags in restaurant inspection reports
Consumers should look for violations listed in the high-priority category.
The food preparation practices and behaviors that increase the chances of food-borne illness outbreaks include:
Improper holding times and temperatures for food and beverages
Inadequate cooking such as undercooked meat
Poor personal hygiene such as a lack of hand washing
Contaminated food contact surfaces such as dirty knives and countertops
Rodents, insects or other pests present
Food from unsafe sources
Emergency closures can result from violations such as a lack of approved utilities or hot water, sewage backups or overflows, fire damage, pest infestation or inadequate refrigeration.
Florida law requires all food service establishments to provide their most recent inspection report to consumers upon request.
To file a complaint, call the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation at 850-487-1395 or fill out the complaint form at myfloridalicense.com.
Sources: Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, Centers for Disease Control
RESTAURANT INSPECTIONS IN THE POST
Starting today, The Palm Beach Post is publishing results of the state’s inspections of Palm Beach County restaurants. The weekly report includes restaurants that earn a perfect rating and those with violations that call for the business to close - even if just for a few hours. See the report on Page 3B.