Brae Surgeoner Commentary from the Food Safety Network, Brae Surgeoner

Like on MTV’s My Super Sweet 16, the mesmerizing show that follows Christian Dior-obsessed rich kids about to come-of-age as they plan their own outlandish birthday parties, and which has teenagers (and adults) across America questioning whether their parents really do love them.

Or, apparently, for independent restaurant owners in Topeka, Kansas, where rumors of biased restaurant inspections and critical violation drama have appeared following the popularity and apparent influence of publicly posting inspection reports — a practice that is growing across North America. Since 1998 when Los Angeles began requiring restaurants to display letter-grade cards corresponding to the result of their most recent food safety inspection, over 100 North American jurisdictions have started to disclose inspection results using an array of methods.

Last month, Dean Yee, the owner of China Inn, the oldest Chinese restaurant in Topeka, announced that he would be shutting down on Nov. 19 — the result of an ongoing dispute with fussy health inspectors.

Mr. Yee alleges the health department put an end to his food preparation with unwarranted fines and a notice of intent to suspend his license. For the health-conscious, restaurant-going public who cut-off their patronage, the slaps on the wrist did not go unnoticed.

Since the end of last February, China Inn has been inspected on seven different occasions. According to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s restaurant inspection website, only one of these was routine; the rest were complaint-related and resulted in a total of 38 critical violations. A critical violation means a provision of the Kansas Food Code that, if left uncorrected, is more likely than other violations to contribute to food contamination or illness, or environmental health hazard. In the U.S. there are 76 million cases of foodborne illness and 5,000 related deaths every year.

Some restaurant managers say that publicly available inspection reports motivate them to avoid the stigma of a bad report; they work vigilantly to ensure safe food and flaunt inspection information as a coy marketing ploy to lure people into their restaurants. This past summer, for example, a flashy ad in an in-flight magazine for American Airline caught my eye. Brazilian steakhouse, Churrasascaria Plataforma, featuring the bold headline, “Golden Apple Award Winner for Excellence in Food Safety” — no small feat considering that to qualify for the award, a food service establishment must not have any critical violations during their past two consecutive inspections, and must demonstrate the implementation and active use of a food safety management program.

Still, other restaurateurs snub this era of public disclosure and constructive dialogue — reacting with the same conviction of a wronged teen whose parents threaten to take away their license. Those who can’t get the public image that they want without hard work complain, "I don’t really care what the health department thinks, we keep this place spotless," as did Mr. Yee to a Topeka Capital-Journal news reporter. Note to restaurant-goers: the human eye cannot detect the microbial agents that cause foodborne illness.

In the last three years, KDHE news releases show the majority of Topeka restaurants fined since January 2003 have been mom and pop operations. The findings mirror suspicions of many independent operators that inspectors are making nice with the big chains.

The national chains may not be making the press releases because they’re actually doing a good job in terms of food safety. As some of the biggest chains have already learned (think Jack-in-the-Box and Chi Chi’s), they have a great deal at stake.

In the spirit of the public’s right-to-know, the disclosure of restaurant inspection results creates powerful economic incentives, for all types of restaurants, to improve public health. Resistance is futile: reward those establishments that embrace food safety, and punish the others through loss of reputation, customers and suspended or revoked licenses.

Brae Surgeoner is a research assistant with the Food Safety Network at Kansas State University.