USING OPEN RECORDS: Local restaurant health inspections provide story ideas, service to readers

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A citizen’s right to know and journalists’ rights to report are threatened every day, say the organizers of Sunshine Week, who planned the weeklong program to highlight freedom of information issues and emphasize the importance of open government. The Student Press Law Center is celebrating Sunshine Week with a series of reports on how student journalists can encourage open government and use open records to expand their journalistic horizons and let the sunshine in.

For a surprisingly simple open records story, look no further than your local restaurant health inspections. Writing this investigative story requires only a few hours of research and a strong stomach, and the results would be of particular interest to students of any level who dine at local establishments.

Food service establishments across the country are subject to routine health inspections, and those inspection reports — be they from a school cafeteria or five-star restaurant — are almost always open to the public under state open records law.

Health inspection grades likely are available at your county’s environmental health office, as are past copies of inspectors’ reports. In some counties, the information is even posted online.

To demonstrate the possible story ideas in such a records request, we reviewed the health inspection history of the dozen restaurants closest to the Student Press Law Center office in Rosslyn, a neighborhood of in Arlington County, Va., directly across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. During the past four years, health inspectors uncovered 397 critical violations at these 12 restaurants.

According to health department standards, critical violations are those that, if left uncorrected, could cause food contamination or illness — for example the presence of pests or improper food storage. They are more severe than non-critical violations, which are those that interfere with the restaurant’s daily operation.

When presented en masse, the health inspection records offer an ambiguous picture, but the information lends itself to a deeper analysis that could reveal a bevy of potential articles.

For example, one Rosslyn establishment that has been particularly prone to health code offenses, China Garden Restaurant, tallied 68 critical violations during the 12 inspections it has had since Feb. 27, 2003. Of those 68 violations, 35 were repeated infractions from previous inspections. That means that more than half of the most severe violations were second warnings — and in some cases, third or fourth warnings.

For example, during six of the past eight inspections, including the most recent one in August 2006, health inspectors found raw food, such as uncooked meat, stored above ready-to-eat food, such as vegetables. Such health code violations might be significant to your readers, especially considering the potentially harmful repercussions.

The interaction between uncooked meats and ready-to-eat foods leads to a substantial risk of transferring bacteria and pathogens, including hepatitis A, salmonella and E. coli, said Rick Snaman, senior environmental health specialist for Arlington County’s environmental health office.

Another noteworthy instance: China Garden was cited five times for the presence of vermin between January 2004 and April 2005 before the problem was rectified. In each visit inspectors found mice droppings around the restaurant; in one trip there were “bugs found in flour bin,” and in another “fruit flies [were] found in produce storage room and throughout the facility,” according to the inspector’s notes.

The research into the health records serves more than to offer a lurid and stomach-turning story for your readers. On one hand it does serve to offer an explanation of the letter grades posted at each restaurant, which can be vague. But more importantly, the research can generate some provocative questions for health department officials — thus fulfilling the newspaper’s crucial role as a watchdog.

One pressing question for Arlington County health officials, for instance, would be why it took five consecutive health inspections for China Garden to correct its vermin problem — especially when one inspector noted during a March 2005 visit that “methods are not being used to control pests.”

For the record, Snaman explained that a restaurant is closed when there is found to be an imminent health-hazard such as vermin infestation, which occurs when pests are present “in the food, basically.”

“In a closet, in the back, on a floor or droppings is not an imminent hazard,” he said.

He said that five repeated violations at a restaurant is not uncommon, but after a certain point a habitually offending establishment will be called before an administrative hearing and could face stiff punishment. Snaman estimated that 12 repeat violations will usually compel scrutiny, but he said that some infractions are more serious and call for swifter response.

“If it’s critical enough, we’ll take action,” he said. “It’s judgmental: How many mice droppings do you get in trouble for?”

Most towns have a number of locally owned and so-called “chain” restaurants, so look to the ones that students at your school frequent. Interestingly, in Rosslyn, corporate fast-food restaurants such as McDonalds’ and Chipotle Mexican Grill were more up to health code standards than local establishments. The five “chains” we sampled had an average of 2.1 critical violations per visit, while the seven locally owned restaurants had an average of 3.8 critical violations per visit.

When writing the article, be wary against sensationalizing. It should be more than an attempt to merely catalogue the sordid details of food preparation, and it should not needlessly target a particularly unpopular establishment in town. Instead, maintain the standards of journalism and, of course, good taste.

By Brian Hudson, SPLC staff writer