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Local health officials continue to discuss publicizing restaurant inspections

Pam G. Dempsey/CU-CitizenAccess –  Public health officials continue to give failing scores to restaurants in Champaign County each month, but after more than three years of study they still have not decided how to make those inspections routinely public.

Most recently, Champaign County Board of Health members said they wanted to wait for a national food protection group to issue recommendations after it met in Indianapolis in April. The recommendations would have guided health officials on how to make inspections public.

But Jim Roberts, who heads the inspection program in Champaign County, said that no clear guidance came out of that meeting and county officials are again considering the options of posting the full inspection reports in the restaurants and online.

Unlike most counties, the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District does not do either. They also do not require restaurants and food-related service industries to post inspection scores or any sort of letter grade at their establishments.

Currently, CU-CitizenAccess.org, a digital newsroom, posts the reports on restaurants that fail inspections after having to make freedom of information requests each month.

Champaign county officials also are discussing posting placards in restaurants that give the phone of number of the Public Health District if a customer has a complaint or placards that would let customers know that they can ask for a full inspection report from the restaurant.

Stan James, who serves on the county board of health, said, “We continue to look at it [the issue] in a way to let Champaign County residents know how their restaurants are doing.”

One hesitation in making restaurant inspection results more public could be a symptom of living in a smaller community, he said.

“We have to get out of the mindset that it’s offending somebody because basically we’re doing our job,” James said.

Posting a score or letter-grade could be a good tool, he said.

“I think it’s something that to me as a business person myself, is something that you could point to and say, look, I’m doing good,” James said. “I’m meeting what’s required of me by law and I think it would help everybody and other states, other counties other places that had this , I just hope our county would start embracing it a little bit more,”

Throughout Illinois and the country it is common for restaurants to have to post their grades or scores and many communities post inspections online.

For example, the McClean County Health Department has posted its restaurant inspection scores online for over a decade. Vermilion County Health Department requires its restaurants to post both its inspection score and letter grade in a conspicuous place. 

Members of both the Champaign County Board of Health and the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District Board of Health said they are looking for direction from county health district staff on how to best publicize inspection information.

Suggestions have included posting the full inspection report instead of a score or letter grade, which critics said give limited information and are a snapshot that can change on a day-to-day basis.

 “Personally I’m not in favor of posting the whole report I’m really not because I just don’t see that as something that very few people are going to look like or even want to take the time today when you’re waiting in line to get a table,” James said, “but I think a grading system of some sort has to be fair, I think as we move along and I’m hoping, I am hoping, that we come up with something like that”