Health administrator wants uniform restaurant rules
CHAMPAIGN — Two of the three members of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District board want the agency to go ahead with a color-coded food service rating system on Jan. 1, even though restaurants, bars and food stores outside of Champaign-Urbana wouldn't be subject to the same regulation.
But the administrator of the public health district said she wants uniform rules for the entire county.
The disparity in local food service rules is a result of two separate votes on Tuesday: the public health board's approval of a green/yellow/red placard system at food service businesses in Champaign-Urbana, and the Champaign County Board's rejection of the same plan hours later. The latter vote effects businesses outside of Champaign-Urbana.
The public health board's consent applies only to businesses in Cunningham Township (Urbana) and City of Champaign Township (Champaign), not Savoy or any other areas just outside of the two cities.
It means, for example, that the Applebee's in north Champaign would operate under a different set of regulations than the Applebee's in Savoy.
"I would prefer that we do not have different ordinances in the county than in the city. One way or the other," said Julie Pryde, administrator of the public health district. "Either we do the restaurant placards everywhere or we do it nowhere. Otherwise, it's too confusing and it's an unfair playing field."
But Andy Quarnstrom, the supervisor in City of Champaign Township, and Al Kurtz, chairman of the county board, said they still want the placard system to go into operation on New Year's Day.
"It would be my opinion that barring any legal issues that may arise, we should continue to move forward with this in the cities," said Quarnstrom.
"I think we should enact it and watch it very carefully, and collect data on the system over the next six months," said Kurtz, who voted twice Tuesday for the placard system, first as a member of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District board and later as a county board member. "I'm going to give this six months. I want the program to be rolled out in the cities on Jan. 1. I want to have more discussion on reinspection and timing and other details. But the overall program, I think it's a good first step."
The third member of the public health district board, Cunningham Township Supervisor Michelle Mayol, was unavailable for comment Wednesday. All three board members approved the color-coded system on Tuesday.
It would require all food service businesses to post the 8-1/2- by 11-inch signs, issued by a sanitation inspector, in a prominent place so that customers could see whether they had a green (satisfactory compliance), yellow (reinspection required) or red (closure) score.
County board members, who voted down the plan 11-9, voiced concerns that the signs could give businesses a bad reputation.
"It's disconcerting to me," Sadorus area Republican Jon Schroeder said of restaurants in small towns, "that you're basically going to put a label on these restaurants, whether they're deserved or not, that could definitely hurt because there's not the volume that we've got here in the larger municipalities. If you yellow sticker somebody out there it could be the death knell because people might run away from it."
Champaign Republican Jim McGuire said customers could be confused about the color scheme and Champaign Democrat Astrid Berkson suggested, "Close them if they're dangerous."
Urbana Democrat Chris Alix gave a lengthy explanation of his reasons for opposing the color-coded placard system.
"If we're going to impose a requirement like this on business owners, there needs to be a credible correlation between the color of the placard on the doors and the likelihood that I'm going to get sick eating at that restaurant," Alix said. "My feeling is that inspections are done so infrequently and represent just a snapshot in time that it may not give a good picture. It probably has a lot more to do with whether that restaurant was inspected on the Friday before Dads Day weekend and the kitchen was slammed, or inspected on a Tuesday morning when they had time to clean everything up."
Even a green-colored sign at a restaurant "gives you no necessary sense of security because all it takes is a server who's there working sick because they don't have sick leave to cough in your food. Or one bad oyster in an otherwise pristine kitchen and you're going to get sick," Alix said. "I'm concerned about both creating a false sense of security and creating needless fear in the dining public. And the worst thing we can do is drive people away from a restaurant to eat at a home kitchen because the average home kitchen is probably significantly higher risk of food-borne illness than the average restaurant kitchen."
The next discussion of the inspection placards will be at a study session of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District board on Nov. 21.
"I don't like doing things inconsistently so I would almost prefer that we wait until the county acts," said Pryde, the public health district administrator. "This is one of those things where the community needs to voice their opinion on this.
"We got information from the public that indicates that they clearly wanted this. That's where this came from. This wasn't us saying. 'Oh, let's do something new.' It actually came from the public and went through the county board of health."