Missions Kitchen has exactly the kind of clean-looking dining room in which a guest might expect to see a health inspection report posted in clear sight, but none was visible on a recent visit, and a request to see the report triggered a mad rush to the back room.
Matthew Purdy, the manager, emerged with the green scorecard and the health inspection report. The score: 76. Like many poorly performing restaurants, its scores are typically below 90: 88 in 2008, 78 in 2007, and one 90 at the end of 2007.
“We try to work with the restaurants,” said Richard Lee, director of the environmental health division of San Francisco’s Department of Public Health. “But sometimes the operators don’t cooperate and feel it is not a priority.”
Researchers, health inspectors and other officials agreed there is little incentive for San Francisco restaurants with consistently poor scores to improve them. “When they know the poor performance is public, they make food safety a real priority,” said Sarah Klein, a lawyer and one of the authors of the 2008 study “Dirty Dining,” by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, based in Washington, D.C.
In San Francisco there’s no threat of disclosure; scores don’t have to be posted. Purdy at Missions Kitchen willingly showed a reporter his last inspection report, tacked to a back bulletin board. It was soiled and difficult to read, but Purdy knew exactly what the problem had been. The refrigerators under the cooking area were broken and the owner, he said, was unwilling to repair them for $2,000. “Write about it,” Purdy said.
That’s unnecessary in other cities, where diners know the risks of eating in a restaurant with low scores and owners know the downside of getting them, studies show.
Other Cities Use Clearly Displayed Letter Grades, San Francisco Uses the Threat of More Visits
Klein cited the experience of Los Angeles and its success in reducing the number of foodborne illnesses by 20 percent. Since Los Angeles passed its ordinance in 1997 requiring restaurants to post letter-grade scorecards within five feet of the front door, nearly 75 surrounding cities have followed suit, according to the county.
Last month, New York also began requiring restaurants to post letter health grades for diners to see, following a report that 10,000 people a year end up in the emergency room from foodborne illnesses.
In San Francisco, the health department’s main prod to improve scores is the threat of more routine visits. But it’s a dull stick: The department rarely makes the required number of routine checks on Mission District restaurants, records show.
Click here for a PDF of the full chart by Justin Vaughn Halliwill.
As it turns out, there is currently no health inspector for part of the Mission, but even when there are no vacancies, the department hardly follows its own protocol of two routine visits a year for restaurants that score 81 percent or above, and three a year for those with scores of 80 percent or below.
Lee blamed the lack of visits on the shortage of inspectors. “Districts have been vacant [an inspector] and most likely haven’t been inspected. It affects the public. It’s unfortunate, but that’s what happens when things get delayed.”
“It takes a long time, it’s how the city is,” Lee said, referring to the process of hiring inspectors. Hiring approval has to go through several departments — a process that usually takes four to six months and sometimes longer, he said.
Lee declined to say how long the Mission District position has been vacant, but it’s not the only neighborhood short of health inspectors, he said.
At present, Lee said, the health department is operating with 18 restaurant inspectors; 24 or 25 are needed to cover the city’s 3,944 restaurants and fast-food franchises. Inspectors also check 2,556 markets, schools and hospitals that handle food. Lee declined to name the other districts that are short inspectors, but said that those with adequate staffing help where there are vacancies.
The delays mean that inspections slip — oddly, often for those restaurants that most need it.
Take Dak Win at 2845 Mission Street: It scored an 80 last December with two high-risk violations, one for vermin and one for unclean surfaces. Inspectors returned for a reinspection seven days later, according to records available online. Seven months later, they have yet to make another routine inspection.
In October 2008, the restaurant scored 52 points, and the inspector returned three times for scheduled reinspections to verify that the violations had been abated.
In July 2007, Dak Win scored 57 and finished the year without further routine inspections, records show.
Elsy’s Restaurant at 2893 Mission Street scored 59 in July 2010. It had been more than a year since its last routine inspection, in May 2009, when it scored 78. It scored 72 in May 2008.
One reinspection was scheduled at Elsy’s in 2009, and two in 2008. But in the three years that Elsy’s received scores below 80 in routine, unscheduled inspections, it should have had two more routine inspections; those never happened.
Lee said that despite its staffing shortage, the department’s goal is to inspect businesses twice a year. These days the department counts a reinspection as a second visit. Such follow-up inspections allow inspectors to observe new violations, he said.
Reinspections are not the thorough routine inspections required by the protocol, however. They typically take place a few days after a routine inspection, and the staff knows the inspector will be returning to check on earlier violations.
The Poor Scores Include High-Risk Violations
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s top five “critical violations” are improper holding temperatures, poor personal hygiene by employees, food from unsafe sources, improper cooking time and insufficiently sanitized food surfaces, according to Klein’s study.
On Mission Street, all of the 14 restaurants with scores below 90 violated one or more of these measures. In addition, some had rodent infestations, which are deemed high-risk by the city but not by the Centers.
The Argument Against Clearly Posted Scores
When Supervisor Chris Daly tried in 2004 to get the Board of Supervisors to adopt a letter-grade system with more stringent posting requirements, the restaurant industry argued that it would unfairly damn restaurants — that routine inspections offer only a snapshot in time.
Kevin Westlye, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, defended the association’s position against a more strict and transparent rating system. He has seen restaurants that consistently score well suddenly receive low marks when they are busy, he said.
He argued that the San Francisco law is transparent, because it requires the inspection letter to be posted, and that those who do well should not be subject to multiple inspections.
“The Department’s policy is to post the inspection report so that the public does not have to ask to see the report,” according to the health department’s website. But the reports are often hard to see or not posted at all. Only the most recent reports are posted on the department’s website; for older ones, a user must go to EveryBlock.
This contrasts sharply with New York’s website, where a user can enter a zip code, get a list of restaurants and their scores, then check the history of each restaurant. Los Angeles too offers an easy-to-use system with businesses’s histories and lists of problem restaurants.
“There are a lot of responsible restaurants,” Westlye said. “The people who are trying very hard and score well don’t need to be inspected. You can take the same resources to go to the repeat offenders.”
The health department currently doesn’t have those resources, however. And the so-called snapshots prove remarkably consistent.
Take Mission Street between 15th and 26th streets: The majority of the 61 restaurants in those blocks score above 90, and 26 have earned a symbol of excellence for doing so three years in a row.
At the same time, many of the 14 restaurants that score below 90 are consistently B to C-minus performers. Two exceptions are La Corneta Taqueria, which fell dramatically to 55 in 2007 but then recouped and scored 88 in its second routine inspection that year; and Acaxutla Taqueria, which has scored above 90 all but three times since 2005. Moreover, Acaxutla, which underwent multiple routine inspections over several years, scored fairly consistently on each during a single year, records show.
Klein’s report strongly recommends using a letter grade that consumers can understand, and posting it where it can easily be seen by diners. “For a restaurant association to say that consumers don’t have a right to see [the score] because they only happen every so often is just silly,“ Klein said. Inspections “are meant to protect the public health and are paid for by public dollars. Consumers have every right to know.”
Terrance Powell, the chief environmental health specialist for LA’s Department of Public Health, had his own idea about why San Francisco has lagged behind in transparency around inspections: “It’s a reflection of the population. If people wanted disclosure they would get it.”