CHAMPAIGN — Restaurant customers put their food safety in someone else's hands every time they dine out.
But a public health official says people need to see some proof when they walk in the door of a food establishment that it is following the rules.
Under a proposal that could become a new requirement for all restaurants and other food establishments subject to health inspections in Champaign County, a single-page, color-coded notice showing the results of the most recent inspection would have to be posted somewhere customers could see it.
And for Jim Roberts, environmental health director at the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, the best place for those notices to be posted would be right on the front door, "so people can be informed before they make their dining decisions," he says.
The notices wouldn't be the longer inspection reports the food vendors receive, Roberts says.
They'd be a shorter form, color-coded in green, yellow and red.
Green would mean the establishment is in general compliance, yellow would mean it fell below enforcement benchmarks and requires reinspection, and red would mean it was closed for violations that pose a danger to public health or safety, Roberts said.
Customers would also see on the posted notice a short list of violation categories and the number of times those violations were committed.
"We tried to have something that could be meaningful and easily understood by the public," Roberts said. "The report we give the operator maybe had jargon that operators understood, but is not easily understood by the consuming public."
This new requirement has been making its way through the public comment process, and food vendors will have one of their final opportunities to say what they think about it later this month before an ordinance change is sent to the boards of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District and the Champaign County Public Health Department to consider, Roberts said.
The two health boards will hold a joint study session at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 28 at the Brookens Administrative Center, 1776 E. Washington St., U.
Currently, food establishments are required to post in visible locations their health operating permit and a poster showing at least one method of helping someone who is choking, Roberts said. The posters are available free at the public health district, but in many eating establishments, he says, neither the permit nor a poster is visible.
Roberts said the new additional inspection notice regulation — which he'd like to see in effect Jan. 1 — stands to affect 1,112 food vendors throughout Champaign County.
That excludes University of Illinois food operations, over which the health district doesn't have jurisdiction, and cottage food operators that sell baked goods at farmers' markets, he said.
Vendors that would be affected would include permitted food establishments such as restaurants, groceries and mobile food trucks, along with the institutional kitchens of schools, hospitals and nursing homes, Roberts said.
Posting these notices has been under discussion for about two years, Roberts said, and food establishments have had several opportunities for comment.
"Most of them have been constructive," he said.
Posting inspection notices such as these is done in some other areas, Roberts said. And, he adds, people who dine out have expressed concerns at not being able to access inspection information.
"I think it's been a growing concern," he said.
Michael Johnson, general manager of Big Grove Tavern, Champaign, says the new requirement wouldn't trouble him at all.
"I think it's a good idea, as far as being aware of the food handling processes," he said.
The health district inspects restaurants several times a year, he said, so it's important for people to see a continuing problem at some restaurants.
The proposed new rule is a "step in the right direction," says Brant Houston, co-founder of CU-CitizenAccess.org, a community online news and information project that began in 2011 publishing inspection reports of local restaurants that fail routine health inspections.
"This is a public health issue," said Houston, who is also a professor and holds the Knight Chair in investigative and enterprise reporting at the University of Illinois Journalism Department. "The reason you inspect restaurants is to make sure the public can eat safe and healthy food. And what other public health districts do is, they publicize their results or make them easy to get, so people know about the status of the food establishment and make their decision about the place they want to eat."
Plus, he said, restaurant owners seem to be in favor of the requirement.
"It's great for business if you're constantly passing inspections," Houston said.
Pam Dempsey, CU-CitizenAccess.org coordinator, said the organization receives inspection reports from public health each month through a Freedom of Information Act request.
"We continue to FOIA every inspection report every month, every food establishment inspected for the previous month," she said.
The health district sends CU-CitizenAccess.org 100 to 120 emails a month, with each one containing a separate inspection report, she said.
See failed restaurant inspection information on the CU-CitizenAccess.org website at: http://bit.ly/WDaqnN
Roberts said failed inspection reports show just part of the picture, but when people also see notices coded in green, they'll be able to dine out at the place they've selected with confidence.