Clean up your act!

Is Butte County ready to make restaurant health codes more digestible?

Photo Illustration By Mazi Noble

When you go into a restaurant in Chico, how do you know it isn’t another China Star?

That’s the locally infamous north Chico restaurant where, two years ago, health inspectors discovered conditions so filthy—dead mice, rodent feces and cockroaches everywhere—that, when the news became public, the restaurant was forced to close.

Back then, it wasn’t easy to find out how a restaurant had performed during its most recent inspection. If you were feeling bold, you could ask the restaurant for a copy of its report, but chances were the person you asked wouldn’t have the slightest idea where it was kept.

And today? Has the China Star incident led to significant improvements in the reporting system?

You can go online and search for a restaurant’s latest inspection report, but they’re complex documents that are difficult to decipher and understand.

Just 90 miles away, in Sacramento County, however, the system is as easy to understand as a traffic signal. There, every restaurant is required to display a color-coded sign in the front window, designating the level of food safety in the establishment.

A green, yellow or red placard lets customers know how well a restaurant performed on its most recent safety inspection.

“This system is developed for the public,” said John Rogers, director of the county’s Environmental Health Department. “It’s a simple and clear picture of food safety.”

Would such a system work in Butte County? Absolutely, Rogers said.

The China Star scandal began when the Chico Enterprise-Record reported that a 12-year-old girl had found a dead cockroach in her chow mein.

The day of the cockroach incident, Chico Police Officer Melody Davidson responded to a false burglar alarm at the restaurant. Her report listed conditions so vile that just reading her words might make your stomach turn.

“The condition of the interior of the business was deplorable and horrid. It is impossible for me to find the words to describe what I saw, smelled and touched. The stench was so fetid upon entering the back door of the restaurant, I was forced to hold my breath to keep from becoming sickened,” Davidson wrote.

“About 20 mouse traps were in the kitchen; half were full of dead mice. About five traps were on the stove and grill. A trap on the open grill had a dead mouse in it. Mouse and rat feces was everywhere,” Davidson continued. “Large pots containing foul water and cooking utensils were stacked on the counters in the kitchen next to mouse traps. Cockroaches were everywhere.”

After reporting on Davidson’s findings, the E-R was flooded with outcries of disgust and dissatisfaction. Local television news soon picked up the story.

Details of the sordid conditions prompted Butte County to improve upon its public disclosure of health-code violations, but the information remains difficult to track down and understand. Each restaurant is required to post a food safety certificate notifying consumers that a copy of its latest inspection report is available, but not all comply. The responsibility still falls on the consumer to manage his or her own safety.

As Rogers describes it, Sacramento County improved its inspection system incrementally. The Environmental Health Department was already looking to revamp its system, and the county went forward after hearing several requests from consumers who wanted to know more about how their food was being prepared. In 2006, the department increased its number of inspections to two a year, up from one.

But the department didn’t stop there. Rogers said a significant amount of time was spent looking at programs around the world that help patrons know immediately whether a restaurant is up to code. Eventually it modeled its system after one in Toronto.

“The public has a hard time reading inspection reports, and businesses don’t always comply with providing them,” Rogers said. “The public expressed the need to know more about their safety.”

Under California law, food facilities simply have to post a “food safety certificate” notifying that the premises have been inspected. If patrons want to see the actual report, they have to ask for it at the establishment.

“Disclosure methods are not required under state law,” Rogers said. “It’s basically based on the individual county department to decide what standards they want to apply.”

WINDOW DRESSINGS<br>In Sacramento County, green means go out to eat.

Photo By Larry Dalton

These days, Sacramento County conducts three inspections a year in each restaurant. The visits are unannounced. Each inspector observes the employees’ food handling, inspects the premises and creates a report that is given to the operator.

Once the department inspects a facility, it issues a green, yellow or red placard to display in the window, based on the number of violations at the establishment. Green means that the facility passed with only one or no major violations. These can include the temperatures at which food is held, the condition of the surfaces where food is handled, and the personal hygiene of the employees.

A yellow card is a conditional pass, issued when establishments commit two or more major violations. A re-inspection is performed within three days, and if the corrections are made and they are permanent, the establishment is given a green card.

If at the time of the inspection there are imminent threats to public health, the restaurant is issued a red card and shut down. Rogers said vermin infestation is the most common reason restaurants are slapped with a red.

Once the establishment corrects the violations, it is required to call the Environmental Health Department and be re-inspected. If the facility has made all the corrections, it is issued a green placard.

Rogers said that, while the system does involve more inspections than before, it is welcomed by the restaurant industry as well as the public.

“For the most part operators seem to like the new process,” he said. “They feel like they are being recognized for their efforts.”

Rick Mahan, owner of The Waterboy restaurant in Sacramento County, says he is a strong supporter of the system.

“This is a really good idea,” Mahan said. “Someone coming into a restaurant puts a lot of trust into the establishment to protect their safety. And it’s nice that a restaurant can proudly display its accomplishments.”

One Chico restaurant owner isn’t so sure the color-coded system should come to town. Tim Carrier, owner of The Black Crow in downtown Chico, said his limited knowledge of the program makes him hesitant to invite it to Butte County.

“Having been in the restaurant industry for so long, I know it’s almost impossible to have an inspection and not have them find some sort of violation,” Carrier said. “That’s good because it’s their job, but I’m not sure the general public understands the process.”

Carrier said it’s not fair unless consumers fully know what a violation means and that a yellow placard might “hurt a business that shouldn’t be hurt.”

But he acknowledges that he has never had a customer ask him for a copy of his restaurant’s inspection report.

“After the China Star scare we kept copies of our inspection report out if some people were worried,” he said. “But it certainly isn’t common for customers to ask to see it.”

Carrier said the current Butte County system has room for improvement, adding that even he is wary of eating out. “There are certain restaurants I wouldn’t go into, knowing what I know.”

The Black Crow’s latest inspection report, dated Feb. 5, 2008, shows that, while it was out of compliance on several checklist items, it had no major violation and, under Sacramento County’s system, would have qualified for a green card.

Establishing a color-coded system in Sacramento County was no easy feat, and John Rogers said he can understand why more counties aren’t following Sacramento’s lead.

“It was a pretty involved process,” Rogers said. “We had to go to our Board of Supervisors to get an ordinance giving us the authority to require more from the facility operators.”

So far, at least, there apparently isn’t sufficient desire, or demand, for Butte County to improve its system. “Judging from what I hear, our inspection-report site is a popular site,” said Craig Erickson, deputy director of Butte County’s Environmental Health Department.

That doesn’t mean Butte County couldn’t benefit from a better program. Rogers said that in 2007, the first year of Sacramento’s program, the department saw a decrease of about 50 percent in the number of businesses being tagged with conditional passes.

“Facility operators have really stepped it up,” Rogers said. “There is a great motivation on their part to get their green.”

Rogers also attributes the rise in health standards to outreach classes that the department holds to educate businesses about the program.

“We did a lot of outreach and taught classes on ‘How to Get a Green,’ “ Rogers said. “We ended up teaching 166 classes and have had 3,800 attendees so far.”

There are 5,375 establishments in Sacramento County, so that number is significant.

And for the customers who are eating out, it’s comforting to know that at least in Sacramento County restaurants have a heightened concern for safety standards.

“Having their results so public does increase the interest of the facility to improve upon the standards,” Rogers said. “We really have found something that is supported by all. The industry is happy and so is the public.”