Rats! The Department of Health Responds

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Eileen Shields, communications director for San Francisco’s Department of Public Health, sent Mission Loc@l this e-mail, written by Rajiv Bhatia, M.D., Medical Director, Occupational & Environmental Health, in response to our series about local restaurant inspections.

Mission Local reporter Rigoberto Hernandez (August 4, 2010, “What Happens
When a Health Inspector Finds a Rat?”) is inaccurate and misleading. DPH
would like a chance to correct the record with respect to the Department of
Public Health’s procedures.

Health inspectors can close a restaurant whenever they believe there is an
imminent threat to food safety. When the Director of Health suspends or
revokes a permit to operate, a notice is posted on the door of the
business. Problems such as rat infestation are not simple and require
working with the restaurant owner, the landlord, the city, and often
neighboring properties to correct the multiple urban conditions that
support rodent life. The Department will only allow the restaurant to
reopen when an inspector confirms that the safety hazard has been abated.
Our goal is to have all our restaurants in San Francisco compliant and
ensure the highest level of food safety for all San Francisco diners.
Having minimum or maximum time requirements for closure does not protect
safety.

The San Francisco Department of Public Health has been scoring restaurants
for food safety since 2004. Like some other cities, we use a 0-100
numerical scale which appears to be universally well understood. While
some other jurisdictions use letter grades, there is no evidence to suggest
that there is a meaningful difference between letter and numerical grades
in terms of communication or safety. All letter grades are based on
numerical scores.

San Francisco has the highest level of public disclosure in the country,
requiring not only a score but also the posting of the full inspection
report on the Department’s website. Through the report, the public can
learn about all safety-related conditions in the restaurant. Restaurants
that do not meet the disclosure requirements can be cited for violations of
the food code.

The Department of Public Health has found that working with restaurant
owners to help them come into compliance results in the safe and sanitary
long term outcomes that we all expect when we eat out in our City. — Rajiv
Bhatia, MD, Medical Director, Occupational & Environmental Health

Mission Loc@l’s Response

Eileen:

Thank you for your e-mail.

We understand that a notice is posted when a restaurant is in such serious violation of the health code that its license is suspended by the director, but this article does not address such cases because they happen rarely, and only in the most extreme circumstances. You wrote, “When the Director of Health suspends or revokes a permit to operate, a notice is posted on the door of the business,” and this may be true.

However, as senior health inspector Terrence Hong told our reporter, this happens in only the most extreme cases, and then only when an inspection fails to get the restaurant owner to abate the violations. Mr. Hong also confirmed that this only happens when an abatement hearing is scheduled.

As you mention, this can only be done by the director, not the inspector.

Much more often, we found, a restaurant is closed for high-risk violations — sometimes several — and the inspector returns the following day or several days later to reopen it without a notice ever being posted.

When our reporter spoke to Mr. Hong, he said there is “no protocol” for health inspectors to post a sign in the front of the restaurant stating that the department has closed it. The reporter confirmed this with Mr. Hong twice in a follow-up phone call, and again with another inspector.

The absence of a posting protocol is very different from the policy in other cities we mention in the story. When our reporter spoke with Terrance Powell in Los Angeles, he said explicitly that an inspector in Los Angeles would close the restaurant and, as required by their protocols, post a notice visible to everyone. This was the case with other counties as well. In most cases, these protocols are also listed on the health departments’ websites.

Erin Brady of New York City’s health department said:

“If a restaurant has critical violations that pose a public health risk and cannot be rectified while an inspector is on site [like Café Gratitude’s violation], then the restaurant may be closed until those violations are corrected and a re-opening inspection is passed.” He then went on to say that “If an establishment is closed, then the Health Department posts a sign saying that it was closed.”

This is also the case in Portland.

In Sacramento, when the inspector finds high-risk violations, the official uses the red posting and places it in an area visible to the public.

We would be happy to add an addendum that when a restaurant is found in such serious violation that its license is suspended or revoked by the director, the director posts a public notice. But we would also like to know how many times this has happened in the last year, in the Mission District or elsewhere in the city. We could not find any instances.

You are indeed right that it takes work on all sides to rectify a rat problem. While we took no issue with restaurants reopening and noted that the problem had been abated, your health director confirmed what we could see for ourselves in the public record: Inspectors do not return for the two to three routine follow-up inspections as required by law for restaurants scoring under 90.

There have been numerous studies on the Los Angeles policy and we can direct you to all of them. They primarily address transparency, posting public notices on restaurants with a rat problem, posting the reasons why, and posting the ratings — whether letter or number — within five feet of the entrance.

In terms of its effectiveness, numerous studies show LA’s system is successful by every measure: fewer foodborne illnesses, more restaurants receiving A scores, and an economic return for those restaurants that do score an A. Much of this is attributed to where the score is posted and to the transparency around why a restaurant has been closed.

If you can show us other studies that have been done by the San Francisco Department of Public Health or other researchers, we would gladly reference them. We did not find one study that held San Francisco up as a model.

We simply can’t agree that San Francisco has the highest level of public disclosure in the country, because we did not hear that anywhere or read it in any of the numerous studies we reviewed. The reporting is not based on our opinion, but on studies, on the public record and on interviews with San Francisco health inspectors and health inspectors elsewhere.

But there is always the possibility that we have overlooked something, and we welcome any documentation you can provide on this issue.

Thank you, and if you have any other questions, please let us know.

Lydia Chavez

4 Comments

  1. ian

    this is some really good work. thank you.

  2. mark

    Excellent!

  3. Kevin

    Thank you, Mission Loc@l!!

  4. sfmissionman

    Congratulations to reporters Hernandez and Chavez, and MissionLocal for an excellent series of articles, and an excellent, measured, professional response to the city’s rather weak email. Rats visit my backyard, where we go to great pains to abate them, but if they are finding food and cover in the neighbors’ (which include restaurants) trash bins and kitchens, there’s little we can do.

    DPH wrote: “Problems such as rat infestation are not simple and require
    working with the restaurant owner, the landlord, the city, and often
    neighboring properties to correct the multiple urban conditions that
    support rodent life.”

    This is undoubtedly true, but merely to state it, but fail to do it, seems the norm in the Mission.

Comments are closed.