Memories of China Star

Push for food-safety rating calls for public input

An example of the placards that could be posted in the windows of Butte County restaurants within a couple of years.

An example of the placards that could be posted in the windows of Butte County restaurants within a couple of years.

PHOTO Courtesy of Butte County Public Health

Weigh in:
The public is invited to provide input on Butte County Public Health’s proposed food-safety rating system in Chico on Nov. 12 at the CARD Center (545 Vallombrosa Ave.), and in Oroville on Nov. 13 at Oroville City Hall (1735 Montgomery St.). Both meetings start at 4 p.m.

About seven years after local police stumbled upon nightmarish food preparation conditions at a Chico restaurant, Butte County is making a push to increase accountability and transparency in the local retail-food industry.

But the soonest a possible county ordinance will begin enforcing a publicly visible food-safety rating system is 2015, nearly a decade after a 12-year-old girl eating at the now-defunct China Star Super Buffet found a dead cockroach in her chow mein.

In 2006, the Chico Enterprise-Record reported the cockroach incident at the restaurant on the corner of Esplanade and East Avenue. Chico Police Officer Melody Davidson responded to a false burglar alarm at China Star that same day and discovered a food-preparation area so putrid that she was forced to “hold her breath to keep from becoming sickened.”

Davidson’s written account of what she saw is still enough to turn one’s stomach: “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. Large pots containing foul water and cooking utensils were stacked on the counters in the kitchen next to mouse traps. Cockroaches were everywhere.”

Subsequent public outcry forced China Star to close, and prompted Butte County Public Health to increase access to disclosures of health-code violations, requiring restaurants to post a notification that the latest inspection report is available. (Not all restaurants post such a notification, but all inspection reports can be found on Butte County Public Health’s website).

In a CN&R article (“Clean Up Your Act!,” March 20, 2008), this paper implored the county to go a step further, pointing to Sacramento County’s restaurant safety-rating system in which a green, yellow or red placard is issued following an unannounced inspection. The placards, on display in the restaurant’s front window, reflect the number of violations found at the establishment during the most recent inspection.

A green card means the facility had one or no major violations. A yellow card is a conditional pass issued if two or more major violations are identified, in which case a second inspection must be conducted within three days; if the problems are addressed, the restaurant is issued a green card. If the inspection identifies an imminent health hazard—like sewage overflow or a rodent infestation—a red card is issued and the restaurant is shut down.

Now, Butte County health officials are taking steps toward drafting a county ordinance that would enforce a health-rating system similar to Sacramento County’s. During a public workshop at Paradise Town Hall on Monday, Nov. 4, Brad Banner, the county’s environmental-health director, outlined a timeframe for possible implementation.

“If everything went ideally, the very earliest an ordinance would be in full effect would be 2015,” Banner told a handful of concerned citizens, explaining that before drafting begins, direction from the Butte County Board of Supervisors is required.

Further, the process will include a six-month pilot program during which no placards will be posted, allowing restaurant owners a chance to become familiar with the new system. “At the same time, we’ll be making sure our inspections are as consistent and uniform as possible,” Banner said.

In August, the county hosted similar workshops to gather input from local restaurant owners, some of whom voiced concern about increased cost to business, Banner said. However, most were in favor of the proposed placarding system.

From a consumer standpoint, Banner said the placards will “give the public a sense of confidence when they go out and eat,” noting that there has been a documented decrease in instances of foodborne illness and the number of food-safety violations at restaurants in California counties that enforce a food safety-rating program.