An example closure notice proposed by the Health Department.

City officials said Tuesday that they will post closure notices on restaurants considered to be health hazards. The president of the Health Commission also promised to propose further policy changes to boost restaurant inspections and help diners more easily find a restaurant’s health score.

In a two-page report presented to members of a Health Commission subcommittee, Dr. Rajiv Bhatia, San Francisco’s director of occupational and environmental health, outlined the state of the city’s food safety inspection program.

Notably, the report included a new provision that will arm health inspectors with public closure notices to post at restaurants where imminent health hazards are discovered or that have continued health code violations. Unlike Los Angeles and Sacramento, San Francisco restaurants that are closed for health violations are not required to post an official notice. Instead, owners often put up signs saying they are closed for renovations, health inspectors told Mission Loc@l earlier this year.

The afternoon’s meeting quickly moved to a wide-ranging discussion of the restaurant inspection program’s efficacy and to questions that Health Commission President James Illig had after reading a series of articles in Mission Loc@l.

“We serve the entire population of the city,” said Bhatia, underscoring the need for information regarding health code compliance to be made publicly available.

After the meeting, Bhatia said he would advocate for more transparency within the food safety inspection program, including posting inspection scores within five feet of a restaurant’s entrance — which is the policy in cities such as Los Angeles and New York.

Bhatia also addressed Illig’s concerns regarding the beleaguered program’s lack of transparency, high worker turnover and decline in the number of inspections in recent years.

At the end of the two-hour meeting, Illig said he will propose a resolution for four points of action on October 19, including measures to expedite the filling of vacant health inspector positions, advising the Board of Supervisors to revise the ordinance that pertains to posting inspection scores and updating the Department of Public Health’s website to make restaurant information more easily accessible.

“I’ve been online to look up restaurants like Medjool and Flour + Water,” Illig said, referring to the department’s inspection score search tool. “I couldn’t find anything.” The websites of health departments in other large cities are more user-friendly, he said.

Not Enough Health Inspectors

Understaffing is the department’s biggest constraint in failing to make the required two routine inspections a year, Bhatia said. The department currently has 17.5 health inspectors, five shy of the full head count of 22.5. (The .5 in each figure refers to a part-time employee who handles temporary events.)

A number of health department employees have retired recently, Bhatia said, and the department has been slow to fill the vacancies because of tightened city budgets and indirect hiring freezes that should not, but do, affect even such fee-funded positions. The department is now interviewing for three of the five vacancies.

Previously, Mission Loc@l reported that key areas of the Mission District were missing an inspector. Since then, inspector positions have been filled for both the lower 24th Street corridor and Mission Street between 20th and 24th streets, according to Kenny Wong, one of the city’s principal environmental health inspectors.

Wong estimated that there are currently four to five inspectors rotating through the area from 14th Street to the outer Mission.

Still, Wong does not think the department will reach its goal of paying at least two routine visits a year to each of the city’s 6,800 food establishments. Three-quarters of the way through 2010, the city has conducted only 4,579 routine inspections.

Inspectors also make follow-up visits to ensure that violations have been abated.

Low-scoring Restaurants

With less than a full staff, inspectors prioritize visits to low-scoring restaurants and those deemed most in need, according to Lisa O’Malley, another principal environmental health inspector.

“Targeting troubled operators with chronic issues is perhaps most effective,” Bhatia said.

The popular Papalote Mexican Grill could be considered one of those low-scoring “troubled operators.” In July, Papalote received a score of 65, and was cited for nine low- to high-risk health code violations.

Victor Escobedo, Papalote’s CEO, has a different view. For the past 11 years, the restaurant has been run the same way, he said — with a set time to cook, a set time to prep and a set time to clean — yet its health department scores have fluctuated, a fact he attributes to variances in how individual inspectors conduct their inspections.

“A score this low was shocking to our staff and to my brother and me,” Escobedo wrote in an e-mail. The brothers operate two Papalote locations in San Francisco. “We do not think it is a fair score at all.”

In 2007 and 2008, Papalote’s 24th Street location’s inspection scores were around 80. Then, in December 2008, its score dropped sharply to 70, before rebounding to 74 in April 2009. That was the restaurant’s last recorded inspection score before its July rating of 65. Papalote’s Fulton Avenue location received a score of 98 earlier this month, a two-point jump from an inspection earlier this year.

As an example, Escobedo noted one citation in his July inspection report that read “hands not clean, improperly washed or gloves improperly used.” The code, CFR 002, requires employees to properly clean their hands before handling food.

As Escobedo recalled the day, one employee had just finished scrubbing a grill with a cleaning brick when the inspector showed up. The inspector was new to them, and because he was accompanied by a supervisor, Papalote staff thought he might be new to the department.

“These black cleaning bricks work better in wet conditions, and the process generates a black residue that is ultimately wiped off the grill,” said Escobedo. “Unfortunately for all of us, when the inspector got to this employee, the residue was present under his fingernails, giving the appearance that we had hired a person who enjoys having caked dirt under his fingernails.”

Papalote remedied all nine of its violations within 10 days, according to the Department of Public Health website, though its score won’t be changed until there is another routine inspection.

Posting Scores and Notices

In 2004, Supervisor Chris Daly advocated a letter-grade system for restaurant inspections, which Los Angeles and now New York use. The system would have ranked restaurants by a series of letter grades from A to D, based on health code compliance, and would have required them to post that grade in plain view. The executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association at the time called the grades “scarlet letters.”

The ordinance faced stiff opposition and was ultimately defeated. The present scoring system was a compromise resulting from that effort, Bhatia said. The system offers more granularity into a restaurant’s health code practices, he said, but conceded that “scores are imperfect.”

“More visibility by the Board [of Supervisors] is a good idea,” he said, referring to one of Commissioner Illig’s proposals to change where scores are posted.

But more transparency does not necessarily mean safer food establishments, Bhatia said.

“Making changes for troubled operators takes time.”

Looking at the breakdown of inspections from 2007 and 2010, that is one fact that does seem clear. Of the 23,207 inspections conducted in 2007, nearly 60 percent were re-inspections or follow-ups. Inspection numbers for 2010 show a similar ratio.

As Mission Loc@l previously reported, inspectors in other cities believe that creating more transparency does affect restaurants’ overall performance.

A Stanford University study found that between 1998, when a strict letter-grade system was adopted in Los Angeles, and 2007, restaurant scores there rose by eight points to 93.3, and restaurants scoring a C grade decreased, from 17.6 percent in the first six months of 1998 to 1.8 percent in 2007.

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

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Ashwin Seshagiri

Life-long Bay Area resident Ashwin Seshagiri moved to the Mission last year to pursue journalism professionally. Though at times cynical about the familiar haunts, he manages to uncover delightful surprises in the neighborhood’s interiors. When he’s not exploring, Seshagiri might be found playing bocce ball at Precita Park or making the devilish drive down Route 1 to Half Moon Bay.

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