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Food Safety Network Blog

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

LA part 1

So I made it to LA, on my pilgramage to the food premises inspection heart of the world. I found out yesterday that LA was not the first place in North America to assign and post grades at restaurants, but they have been the most influential and replicated system; since LA has begun their system grade posting has popped up all over North America (there are over 80 systems to-date).

Dani and I went to a local market on Broadway in downtown LA yesterday to look for the grade cards. The market was busy, we saw some A and B grades (no C's, which have so far been elusive) and lots of patrons at all stalls. You can see the B grade prominently displayed in the picture here.

As for celebrities, I did interview Paul Simon yesterday, though not the one who paired with Art Garfunkel, this Paul Simon is an epidemiologist. Dr. Simon provided me with some insights into the evaluation of LA's inspection disclosure program.

What is becoming more apparent to me is that public health systems like LA's are working not just because there is a grade that is posted, but as one of my interviewees suggested yesterday, that they are interested in engaging in a food safety dialogue with restaurant operators and (probably most importantly) with the public.

New blog spot

So we had some comments in the world wide internets mentioning that our forum over at blog.foodsafetynetwork.ca wasn't really a blog. And they were right. So we've set up this actual blog here and this is the first post.

Last week I put together this op-ed which appeared on FSnet and said I'd be upating folks about my trip to LA. Read on for some wacky tales.

And the winner is …
March 6, 2006
Commentary from the Food Safety Network
Ben Chapman
Oscar-winner Reese Witherspoon has signed up for a $29 million paycheck for her next flick, and hubby Ryan Phillippe was part of surprise Best Picture winner, Crash.
Oscar results like these were posted on the Internet seconds after the envelope was opened. I accessed the info last night on the Internet movie database (www.imdb.com) while watching the stars make their acceptance speeches. IMDB boasts over 35 million monthly visitors looking to make entertainment decisions, and I probably wasn't the only one using it last night to get more info on nominated films.
What a night for Witherspoon and Phillipe (soon-to-be branded Philspoon?). The couple may be celebrating their victories at an expensive Los Angeles restaurant in the upcoming days. Like the Oscar results, Reese and Ryan can access their chosen restaurant's inspection score in close-to-realtime; in Los Angeles, the winning -- or losing -- envelopes so to speak can be found on the health department's website or viewed on the restaurant's door. Even hip clubs like the Viper Room, (most famously the final resting spot for Reese's Walk the Line costar's older brother, River Phoenix) are accounted for. In 10 seconds of searching I was able to see that on January 11th, the Viper Room scored an A, with a 93 per cent rating on their inspection. I can't even find who played there on the same date that quickly.
The results of restaurant inspections by health authorities in both Canada and the U.S. are inherently public information, but accessibility and transparency vary from county to county.
Apparently it's non-existent in Saskatoon.
In the absence of regular media exposes, or a reality TV show where camera crews follow an inspector into a restaurant unannounced, how do diners actually know if their favourite restaurants are as concerned about food safety as they are?
In 2002, the city of Toronto implemented a color grading system of green (pass), yellow (conditional pass) and red (closed). Toronto’s move to action was a direct response to one reporter's week-long media blitz entitled Dirty Dining, published in the Toronto Star in 2000, and the subsequent public outcry for information.
Also in Ontario, Waterloo Region has developed a web site for diners and others to view inspection reports, while in Halton Region restaurants can voluntarily post a Certificate of Inspection which informs diners that a summary inspection report, outlining whether the restaurant has met basic food safety standards as required by provincial legislation, is available for public viewing in the restaurant.
The idea is that publicly available grading systems rapidly communicate to diners the potential risk in dining at a particular establishment; restaurants given a lower grade will be more likely to comply with health regulations in the future to prevent lost business. The hope is that restaurant operators are forced to make organizational changes to day-to-day operations. Whether such systems actually improve public health requires further study. For example, does knowing that the inspection grades are posted do anything to impact the intentions and practices of food handlers? Do diners actually make decisions based on knowledge of inspection results? Is it worth the public money to develop a disclosure system?
To date, food system regulators in over 100 jurisdictions in North America have explored proactively disclosing the results of restaurant inspections through a variety of media including websites, popular media and signage at restaurants.
Regardless of the style of disclosure system, the goal is to provide information to a hungry public looking to do what they can to avoid getting sick. Stars vomit too, not only from drinking or participating in Celebrity Fear Factor; Tiger Woods pulled out of a tournament two weeks ago because he was ill. More importantly, such public displays of information might just bolster overall awareness of safe food handling practices which could ultimately reduce the burden of foodborne illness. And the correct assumption is that the interested public (celebrity or not) can handle more, not less, information about food safety.
Ben Chapman is a PhD student with the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph and is combining his interests in Hollywood glitz and food safety by making a pilgrimage to Los Angeles next week. Follow his adventures on blog.foodsafetynetwork.ca