County board to vote on restaurant-inspection placards

URBANA — A new system for color-coded food-service inspection placards goes before the Champaign County Board for approval tonight.

The board will meet as a committee of the whole at 6 p.m. at the Brookens Administrative Center, 1776 E. Washington St., U, to discuss the restaurant and food store inspection plan, as well as a number of other issues including approval of the county's fiscal year 2014 tax levy and budget.

Single-sheet, 8 1/2-by-10-inch inspection notice placards would have to be displayed in a prominent place under a proposed amendment to the food sanitation ordinances of both the Champaign-Urbana Public Health Board and the Champaign County Health Board.

The placards would be coded green ("satisfactory compliance"), yellow ("reinspection required") or red ("closure").

The proposal has already been approved by the county board of health, and it will go before the Champaign-Urbana Public Heath District board this afternoon. If approved, it could go into effect by Jan. 1, according to county board members.

"There's been a little controversy about it, but I think a lot of it is how it's delivered to people. On my side of the fence, there's concern about government regulation because no one wants too much of it. But I think that once it's all ironed out, it will be a good tool," said Stan James, a Rantoul-area Republican who serves on both the county board and the county board of health. "It's been about a two-year process. We've reviewed it and gone over it and came up with some ideas for it. So now everyone seems to be on board with it."

County board Chairman Alan Kurtz, a Champaign Democrat and a member of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District board, said "we've had a number of public hearings and a number of restaurateurs have come out and looked at the program."

He said the placard proposal went through a review and some changes, "and I didn't hear much opposition to it. I think restaurant owners who are responsible understand their responsibility."

The program won't require additional fees from food-service owners, Kurtz said. But it might include new fines for those who violate the ordinance, James said.

"That's one thing the county board will be looking at in the future, because if it doesn't have any teeth, you don't have anything," James said. "That will be our next big adventure. But I want it to be fair.

"There's no fine now, but they can end up shutting them down if they don't comply. I wanted some kind of fine because if our inspectors keep going back two or three times, look at the cost of that."

James said the placard program, combined with the longtime procedure of having health inspectors review food-service providers, is something he has long supported.

"It's something that when I got on the board of health I said it would be nice when you walk into a restaurant, especially if you're from out of town, that there was some type of system that you could look at and you knew it was safe," he said. "When I was a young man back in high school, California had it. Inspectors would come in, put notices up and people could read them or not. To me, it's a good tool, and restaurants, in my mind, should embrace it. If you're doing well, that speaks volumes."

Kurtz also cited California's system of publicly displaying sanitation scores at businesses with food service.

"As a former restaurateur — I owned a Blimpies subs and salads franchise here for 11 years — I understand personally how important it is to have sanitary conditions in a kitchen," he said. "If you look at it around the country, there are other models. In California, they have these signs with A, B and C out front. A means its passed its inspection. B means there are some concerns and C means I wouldn't go into it. But there are models across the country.

"I think this has been in the works for quite a while because we had some restaurants that had to be closed down. We certainly don't want any restaurant closed down. They're part of our community; they're economic drivers. But we also have a responsibility to protect our community."

If approved at tonight's committee-of-the-whole meeting, the inspection-notice placard proposal would come before the county board for final approval at its Nov. 21 meeting.

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