Tammie Smith of the Times-Dispatch reports that restaurant inspections in Virginia turn up plenty of establishments with violations. Consumers can find out if their favorite breakfast, lunch or dinner spot is a culprit by going to the Virginia Department of Health’s restaurant inspection Web site: www.healthspace.ca/vdh.
Inspection reports for more than 25,000 restaurants and other food service establishments around the state are included in the database, which has been online since May 1, 2003.
Gary Hagy, director of the Division of Food & Environmental Services at the Virginia Department of Health, said the Web site averages about 75,000 visitors a month.
“[Consumers] can look at the inspection report, which would show any violation cited during the inspection,” said Hagy. The report also would detail what action was taken.
Inspectors note if a violation is a repeat and also if it’s noncritical or critical, which poses a greater risk of causing foodborne illness if not corrected.
“You are not getting a score. You are not getting a grade,” Hagy said.
Rather, consumers are able to see what the inspector found while checking to make sure safe food preparation, storage and handling practices are being followed.
Such measures are vital in helping to prevent foodborne illnesses, which can range from a short-lived “stomach flu,” which is really not a flu but an intestinal bug, to a life-threatening ailment with the potential to damage the kidneys.
Federal health experts estimate that as many as 76 million people a year get sick as a result of contaminated food. More than 300,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 Americans die as a result of foodborne illnesses.
Not all of that is from restaurants — consumers fixing meals at home can use improper food handling techniques. Or it can be a case where food was contaminated at a packing plant or in a farm field.
But restaurants are part of the picture. According to the National Restaurant Association the average household in 2004 spent $2,434 for food prepared away from home. In households with yearly income of more than $70,000, nearly half of the household’s total food dollar was spent on food prepared away from home.
Information on the Virginia restaurant inspection Web site is listed by city or county. Staff from local health departments do the inspections.
“We view ourselves as health educators,” said Michael Campbell, environmental health manager for the Henrico County Health Department.
“The majority of our work is dealing with food professionals. They want to do it right. We come in as an extra set of eyes. The majority of food service operators are very diligent. Violations are corrected during or shortly thereafter inspections.”
Special inspections can occur in the course of foodborne illness outbreaks to try to trace a source of infection, explained Diane Woolard, director of the state Health Department’s division of surveillance and investigation.
“Outbreaks can occur anywhere,” said Woolard. “Even places that have the greatest inspections can have bad luck sometimes.”
It is very rare, inspection officials said, for a facility to be shut down, but when that does happen it is because of major problems such as not having hot water or refrigeration.
That action is taken at the local level.
“They almost always open back up,” said Henrico’s Campbell.
Consumers sometimes call a health department seeking help with interpreting the inspection reports. They want to know if it’s safe to eat at a particular place.
Campbell said they don’t make that call for them. If a consumer is fixated on eating only at squeaky-clean restaurants with no violations, they are not going to find them
“You wouldn’t be going out to eat much,” said Campbell. “Most restaurants that have any level of complexity, there are going to be violations.”