Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Project: Austin's restaurant inspections process

By Renee Moreno

Click for interactive visualization
Last year the City of Austin performed over 8,000 restaurant inspections. These inspections cover just about any facility that serves food, from churches to restaurants. These scores are then posted online for the public to be able to access and use to judge the quality of a restaurant.

In Texas, the standard elements of a restaurant inspection are set by the state, but it’s then up to the city to monitor and enforce. In Austin, there are 23 Environmental Health Officers who are assigned to monitor the establishments that require inspections according to Carole Barasch, the manager of communications for the Austin department of Health and Human Services.

Inspections happen during any regular business hours, which allows the officers to monitor the daily operations of a business. They bring a scorecard along with them. Included on the card are the three main categories of requirements: Food, Personnel/Handling and Facility/Equipment. Each category has some important requirements listed under it. For example, one of the personnel requirements is “proper/adequate hand washing.” Next to each requirement there is a space for an inspector to deduct points if something isn’t up to code.

Click for interactive visualization
Each part of the scorecard relates back to the Texas Food Establishment Rules, which owners can read to make sure they’re following all of their rules. Some of which are very specific. For example, the code has specific times that they can “hold” different perishable items while waiting to fill orders. This time changes depending on the circumstances and the temperature at which the foods are kept.

However, these rules aren’t just about the food safety. Some of what an inspector looks for is the safety of staff and patrons. One other thing inspectors look for is a poster on the Heimlich maneuver. This poster is required to be in all food establishments at which people are eating. The sign must meet certain size and color requirements and be posted in a place where people could find it if needed. Failure to have this poster, or other crucial consumer advisories can result in a deduction of 3 points from restaurants overall score.

At the end of the visit the officers take add up the number of deductions and subtract that number from 100 to get to the final score that shows up online.

The officers are responsible for inspecting each of the approximately 4,000 food establishments within the city and its surrounding areas twice per year. They aren’t always able to inspect restaurants at this frequency. According to their website, “inspections are prioritized by risk.” This means some restaurants are only inspected once per year.

However, the lack of frequent inspections doesn’t necessarily mean that a restaurant is unsafe. Many restaurants, like Guero’s Taco Bar perform their own inspections to ensure quality at their restaurant.

“Our main goal is to make sure people leave here happy and healthy,” said Rob Lippencott, owner of Guero’s.

Lippencott’s strong desires to keep his patrons happy seem to be a theme across Austin. Over the past three years, less than 2 percent of inspections have resulted in a failing grade. A failing grade is just like it was back in school, anything less than a 70. If a restaurant fails, depending on the violations they have 48 hours to begin fixing the problem. After proper changes have been made, owners must get their establishment re-inspected within approximately 30 days.
Food trucks and farmer's markets however aren’t included in these restaurant inspections. They along with other types of establishments are monitored differently. “Only brick & mortar establishments receive scored inspections,” said Barasch. Their inspections are simply pass/fail. As such they're kept in a different data set that isn't currently available online.

Regardless of the facility being inspected one of the most important things to the department of Heath and Human Services is that the public is able to know about what is going on in their city.

“Educating the public with accurate information is something we work to do on a daily basis,” said Barasch.

Click for interactive visualization


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