How comfortable can you feel about the food you eat when dining out? The answer depends on the individual restaurant and, equally importantly, the community in which it is located.
It took The Morning Call nine months, including legal skirmishes, to get enough information to analyze food safety at Pennsylvania eateries and retailers. The hard work paid off, with stories Sunday and Monday by reporters Tim Darragh and Christopher Schnaars, plus an on-line database of inspection records. They include 78,000 reports from the Lehigh Valley area at mcall.com, the newspaper's Web site.
Because of alarming disparities in inspection practices, there are big holes in the information needed for consumers to be well-informed when eating out. Only four Pennsylvania cities, including Allentown and Bethlehem, and six of 67 counties, including Bucks and Montgomery, conduct their own food establishment inspections under the state's Act 315.
The rest of the state either leaves the inspections to the underfunded, overworked Agriculture Department or local boards of health that have no accountability to the state or the public. Even worse, a different agency, the state Department of Health, handles food-borne disease outbreaks. So while the Agriculture Department inspects restaurants, the health department tracks illnesses by disease not by source of transmission.
Also, the thoroughness of inspection reports varies greatly between communities and individual inspectors. Easton health officials balked at supplying the information, but Mayor Phil Mitman was instrumental in getting the bureaucrats to cooperate. The Morning Call still is pursuing records from Emmaus and Coopersburg, which do not consider the inspections to be the public's business an attitude that ought to embarrass the people who call those towns home.
Two-thirds of reported food-borne illnesses in a 14-year period in Pennsylvania were linked to eateries. Surely, this is due in large part to the fact that years go by between inspections at many places, there are under-trained inspectors, and record-keeping is spotty. The system for inspecting food restaurants and retailers in Pennsylvania has been broken for quite some time. State officials and residents should be appalled appalled enough to demand and get dramatic improvements that would put Pennsylvania on par with many other states where those who dine out are far better protected from food-borne illnesses.
Pennsylvania, which portrays itself as a tourist-friendly state, lets down those visitors (and residents) by not having a uniform and reliable system whose records are public. Making those changes will cost money, and there is no slack in current state budgets. An approach that works in other states, charging inspection fees to help defray the cost of more regular inspections, deserves study. Pennsylvania's current system is an embarrassment and, worse yet, a threat to the health of both residents and visitors.
OPINION: A lack of accountability, transparency in restaurant inspections threatens health
We've upgraded our reader commenting system. Learn more about the new features.
The Baltimore Sun encourages civil dialogue related to our stories; you must register and log-in to our site in order to participate. We reserve the right to remove any user and to delete comments that violate our Terms of Service. By commenting, you agree to these terms. Please flag inappropriate comments.