Health board to urge rural restaurants to use placards

Health board to urge rural restaurants to use placards

CHAMPAIGN — Stung by the county board's rejection of a color-coded placard system for food service outlets outside of Champaign-Urbana, the Champaign County Board of Health is encouraging businesses to comply with the system voluntarily.

The board of health, which has jurisdiction in all areas of Champaign County outside of Cunningham and City of Champaign townships, voted unanimously Tuesday to ask some 320 food service establishments outside Champaign-Urbana to voluntarily follow the system that will go into effect in the cities on Jan. 1.

Under that system, restaurants, retail food stores, day care centers, nursing homes and other food-handling businesses and institutions in Champaign-Urbana will have to display public health district-issued placards that are either green (satisfactory compliance), yellow (reinspection required) or red (closed).

The color-coded system was approved by the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District board last Tuesday but rejected by the county board, 11-9, later that night.

"Why don't we say we direct our staff to make it available to those who voluntarily want to participate," asked county board of heath member David Thies. "I'm a businessperson, too, and I see this as a competitive thing and I like it."

John Peterson, a medical doctor and a member of the board of health, said that food service operations should embrace the placard system and food inspections in general.

"I've always marveled at the resistance they have to these regulations, yet they will not open again if they have a salmonella case," he said. "They'd be bankrupt."

"I don't know why anyone wouldn't want to put up a green (placard)," said county board chair Alan Kurtz of Champaign. "It says, 'come on in, we're clean. We're going to have safe food. We're going to have a safe environment.'"

Julie Pryde, administrator at the public health district, explained that the placard system, with the color-coded signs posted near the entrance to the establishments, would be voluntary only outside of Champaign-Urbana.

"We can provide (the color-coded) placards to them but they have no mandate to make them put them up," she said.

Pryde said that the color-coded rating system has been under discussion for more than two years "and I have had more people, all over the place, excited about this thing."

Jim Roberts, environmental health director for the health district, said that food service establishments would get a yellow placard only if they got 35 percent or less on an inspection. Between 2010 and 2012, he said, only about 4 percent of all food service inspections yielded scores that low.

Under the placard system, businesses that scored that low would get a yellow placard but would be able to remain open. They would get "an unannounced reinspection" after they inform the district's inspectors that they believe they have corrected their sanitation problems.

Meanwhile, county board member and county board of health member Stan James — a longtime supporter of the placard system — said he still hoped the county board could be persuaded to permit the placard system outside of Champaign-Urbana.

"Let's keep this on our agenda and after about five months let's sit down and reapproach the county board and say, 'Here's what we've seen.' If we get some good results, let's use that as a backdrop to pick up some votes," said James, who lives in rural Rantoul.

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pattsi wrote on November 20, 2013 at 10:11 am

Several points of clarification about this system that caused me to vote "no" even though I am a thousand percent in favor of transparency and informing the public as to the health inspection aspects of any restaurant within the county. My reasons were expressed publicly and on the record when Jim Roberts came before the CB to explain the proposed system, based on what is done in Sacramento, CA. (I am all for looking at other models.) After that meeting, I met with Mr. Roberts one-on-one to further express my concerns and make concrete suggestions about the system. Further, I shared these concerns with Julie Pryde, CUPHD director. Unfortunately, none of the expressed concerned were given any credence. One last informational point before elaborating on the concerns has to do with the approval process for implementation. The placard system was approved by the County Board of Health, an appointed body by the CB, and the CUPHD board made up of the elected township supervisors for Urbana and Champaign and the CB chair, directed by statute. Then the issue comes to the CB, all elected officials.

The green, yellow, and red placard system simply put does not indicate to a customer that a restaurant is a clean and safe environment. The reason for this has to do with the scoring system used by CUPHD. The system can allow a restaurant to receive a green placard and still have an egregious health violation. Another aspect, a restaurant can receive 5 violations that do not add up to a score that would award a yellow or red placard; yet, those violations are health violations. Further, the inspection schedule is on an annual visit with a sprinkling of some random visits. Therefore the green placard awarded even though violations exist remains in place for approximately one year. The scoring system needs adjustments so none of the above described circumstances can happen.

Overlaying the above is how to change behavior so restaurant owners do not receive repeat violations. This ought to be  major goal. Yet the system being implemented is being done so in a manner that we will never actually know whether effective or not because only one type of system is being implemented, no control group of restaurants, no random assignment of the implementation. Even though it is being espoused that the system will be observed for 6 months, this will tell us nothing useful based on the manner of implementation. In addition, there are only 9 inspectors available to do all of this work. This is not sufficient staffing to cover all of the restaurants let alone monitor the implementation.

Last but not least there was absolutely no use made of university expertise as to how to design a system that would help create healthful eating environments and convey with clarity the health conditions of each and every restaurant in the county. Indeed, the discussion on a system has been ongoing for about 2 years, this is no reason to implement a system that does not convey to the consumer accurate and clear information and potentially false assurance.