By Justin Vaughn Halliwill

En Español

As an inspector with the San Francisco Public Health Department’s division of environmental health began a follow-up check on Thursday, July 15, in Café Gratitude’s kitchen on 20th and Harrison streets, a juvenile rodent was spotted.

This is a sign of a “vermin infestation,” according to the guidelines of the city’s environmental health division.

After finding holes where vermin could get into the restaurant, the inspector closed Café Gratitude for a high-risk violation, but no one dropping by to eat that Thursday evening would have known why the place was shuttered.

In a city that prides itself on its foodie scene and health standards that require warning labels on cell phones and ban pharmacies from selling cigarettes, San Francisco falls short compared to other counties on the protocols and transparency for dealing with vermin infestations, Mission Loc@l has found.

In fact, compared to Los Angeles, Sacramento, Portland and New York, rats have it easy in San Francisco.

Unlike those other cities, San Francisco requires no publicly posted notice from the health department when a restaurant is shut down for rodent infestations or other health violations. And although most businesses stay closed for a day to abate a rodent problem, as was the case with Cafe Gratitude, San Francisco has no minimum time that an establishment must stay closed.

In sharp contrast, New York, Portland, Sacramento and Los Angeles all put the public on notice when health officials close a restaurant, by posting an official health department notice on the outside of the establishment. And in Los Angeles and Sacramento, inspectors also state the reasons why.

When the health department here closes a restaurant, no notice has to be posted. In fact, a restaurant inspector who asked for anonymity told Mission Loc@l, it’s not uncommon for owners to put up a “closed for renovations” sign.

Terrence Hong, a senior inspector in San Francisco, defended the department’s policy. Not disclosing why a restaurant is closed, he said, gives it the benefit of the doubt and helps relationships between the department and the restaurants. This, he said, can help with compliance.

But fuller public disclosure, others argued, gives restaurants a greater incentive to practice safer food handling.

A Los Angeles official said that city’s strict rules on transparency work. If an LA restaurant has a vermin infestation, health inspectors place a card in the front of the restaurant and explain why the Department of Environmental Health has closed it.

“There is no guesswork here,” said Terrance Powell, the chief environmental health specialist for LA’s Department of Health. “We believe in transparency.”

Powell cited a report by Stanford University that looked at what happened in Los Angeles between 1998, when the stricter system was put in place, and 2007.

During that time, the study found, the average health score for the city’s restaurants rose by eight points to 93.3, and restaurants with a score of  “C” decreased from 17.6 percent in the first six months of 1998 to 1.8 percent in 2007. Under the letter-grade system, any restaurant with 90 or above is awarded an A, 80 or above a B, and 70 or above a C.

District 6 Supervisor Chris Daly failed in 2004 to get a similar system passed in San Francisco. He said his biggest regret is that the city does not require restaurants to post their ratings close to the door and in full view of any diner walking in to eat.

The Stanford study by Phillip Leslie and Ginger Jin also concluded that since the LA rating system has been in place, there has been a 20 percent decrease in patients admitted to hospitals for illnesses that may be food-related.

In Sacramento, where officials use a color system to rate restaurants, there has been an increase in restaurants awarded green scores. A green score means the restaurant passed; yellow is a conditional pass that means violations must be fixed. Red means the restaurant was closed.

The numbers of restaurants with red ratings have remained steady, but according to Alicia Enriquez of the Sacramento Department of Environmental Health, this may have more to do with restaurants that eliminate their pest control services to cut costs.

New York City recently adopted a rating system based on the Los Angeles system.

New York doesn’t go as far as posting the reason a restaurant was closed, but its department of environmental health posts a notice making it clear that the doors have been closed by health officials. Multnomah County, Oregon, which includes Portland, does the same.

Sacramento, which won the 2008 Crumbine Award for its rating system — the guidelines for the award are so strict that some years go without winners — and LA implemented their stricter systems only after media scrutiny found poor practices.

Hong defended San Francisco’s system and pointed out that any member of the public can legally ask a restaurant to show its inspection report.

When a Mission Loc@l reporter went to Café Gratitude on Tuesday afternoon, its inspection report was behind the bar. Asked to show the Café’s report, the manager in charge declined, and only produced the scorecard. “As far as I know, this [scorecard] is the only thing we are required to show,” she said.

“This is a violation,” Hong said.

San Francisco also differs from most of the other cities named in not setting a minimum time before a restaurant can reopen after a closure for rat infestation. Most take a day to abate the problem.

When the inspector closed Café Gratitude on July 15, the department returned the following day and permitted it to reopen after finding that the violation had been abated, records show.

Los Angeles requires an establishment with a rodent infestation to be closed for at least 48 hours.

“We have found that this is the amount of time it takes to abate the issue,” Powell said.

Multnomah County requires 24 hours. New York, Sacramento and San Francisco have no minimum, though officials said it typically takes 24 hours.

Jon Kawaguchi, environmental health supervisor for Multnomah County Environmental Health, said that it’s possible to abate a rat problem within 24 hours if the resources are there.

“Could it be done? Yeah, if you spend the money,” Kawaguchi said.

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Rigoberto Hernandez is a journalism student at San Francisco State University. He has interned at The Oregonian and The Orange County Register, but prefers to report on the Mission District. In his spare time he can be found riding his bike around the city, going to Giants games and admiring the Stable building.

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