The head of McLean County’s restaurant inspection program says the state’s new method of tracking violations could make it harder for the public to quickly understand a business' food safety performance.
The change went into effect Jan. 1, as Illinois adopted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) food code to help create a more uniform inspection process. The new restaurant inspection form moves away from the previous scoring method and emphasizes foodborne illness risk factors and public health interventions. That makes it easier to understand, easier to use for inspectors, and more uniform across the state, said Illinois Department of Public Health spokesperson Melaney Arnold.
“We are focusing less on a score and more on the total number of the foodborne illness risk factor violations,” Arnold said via email.
Previously, McLean County used a scoring system similar to school grades to judge the cleanliness of a food establishment. A business would get docked one point if, say, a prep sink was clogged. If its cooler wasn’t set cold enough—which is done to limit bacterial growth—it might get docked five points. Those deductions lower a business’ score, down from 100. Generally, 90 to 100 is considered an “A,” like in school. Those scores were searchable on the McLean County Health Department’s website.
But as of Jan. 1, the county’s seven full-time inspectors no longer provide comprehensive scores. Instead, only the violations and violation codes are provided on the website, said Linda Foutch, food program supervisor at the McLean County Health Department. If the violation code is between 1-29, those are foodborne illness risk factors and public health interventions. Codes 30 to 58 are good retail practices. A member of the public would have to read the violation to gauge its seriousness.
The scores were easier for people to understand, Foutch said.
“This makes it more difficult for them to obtain the information they’re looking for in a format that’s easily understandable,” she said. “(The new system) provides a lot more information, but they’re gonna have to really want it.”
The complexity of the new FDA food code and inspection form takes her staff 1.5 to 2 times longer to complete their work, Foutch said. Site visits can range from 30 minutes to four hours or longer. They cover around 850 establishments.
“The time constraints are pretty wicked,” she said.
The McLean County Health Department is working with its software provider so that the most high-risk violations will be highlighted on its website in red, as they were before, she said. They’ve also reached out the Illinois Department of Public Health for guidance on whether it’s allowed to do a color grading system, like the red-yellow-green model used in Champaign-Urbana, Foutch said.
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