Hungry for More: South Bay Supervisor Questions Restaurant Inspection System

“It’s a disappointment to me,” is how Supervisor Joe Simitian simply summarized his opinion of the county’s restaurant inspection system to NBC Bay Area, calling for change.

A week after NBC Bay Area exposed a bare-bones restaurant inspection system in Silicon Valley, Santa Clara County has instituted some changes to its online restaurant inspections, but District 5 County Supervisor Joe Simitian is hungry for more.

“It’s really a question of accountability,” Simitian told NBC Bay Area. “Right now, the system doesn’t provide any real accountability for the folks who are the bad actors.”

Since the Investigative Unit report aired, the county now lists “closure” and “reopened” next to restaurants on the Department of Environmental Health’s website. But, it still fails to explain why, falling short of what other Bay Area counties require to be posted online and in restaurants, allowing customers to make informed choices about where they eat.

“There’s no excuse for not having the information presented in a way that’s useful to consumers,” Simitian said.

The Investigative Unit report on Feb. 5 showed Santa Clara County does not grade or score restaurants and has no requirement they post inspection reports in the window; the county also does not post actual inspections online, it just lists categories of violations.

The only law in place to hold restaurants accountable is the California Retail Food Code, a state law which says the latest inspection must be available upon request of customers.

NBC Bay Area went undercover to find in the original report that restaurants are ignoring this law and the county is not enforcing it.

To view the original report, click here.

“It’s a disappointment to me,” is how Simitian simply summarized his opinion of the county’s restaurant inspection system to NBC Bay Area.

Simitian just stepped back into county office last month, after his most recent 8-year hiatus in the state senate and 4 years with the state assembly.

He’s returned to his roots at the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and is picking up issues he thought he’d put to bed over a decade ago, like the posting of restaurant inspections.

Back in 2000, Simitian proposed restaurant grading and received no support, but he did achieve a partial victory: a section of his proposal included making it mandatory for the county to post all actual restaurant inspections online, including inspectors’ nitty gritty details.

This was approved 13 years ago, but nonetheless, the Investigative Unit uncovered, the actual reports still don’t appear on the web.

NBC Bay Area showed the SCC Department of Environmental website only lists categories of violations, but does not specify what restaurants did wrong, if they were shutdown, or any value associated with violations, since there is no scoring system.

“In some ways we’ve actually taken a step back, which is particularly disappointing,” Simitian said.

NBC Bay Area showed an example of a confusing part of the website to Heather Forshey, director of the Consumer Protection Division at SCC’s Department of Environmental Health in the first report: “Enforcement Action” was written down for a Wendy’s in San Jose, but no explanation.

“I’d have to look at the file and look at this a little more closely this is the first time I’ve seen this,” Forshey said in a January interview with NBC Bay Area.

So how are customers supposed to know what this means if the person in charge could not define it?

“Again, I’m looking at this right now for the first time and I would want to take a look at this a little more closely and review it before I can respond to this particular case,” she said. “I agree there are improvements that could be made to the system.”

She later emailed the Investigative Unit and explained it was a closure resulting from a sink overflow.

Wendy’s district manager told NBC Bay Area “this was a plumbing problem, not a food safety issue. We comply with all health department regulations.”

Since being updated, the website now lists "closure" next to Wendy's.

But Simitian is aiming to get the county to post the complete detailed reports online and hopes to get some form of score in the windows of Silicon Valley eateries, sooner, rather than later.

“Here we are a decade later,” Supervisor Simitian said, shaking his head, “We’ll try again.”

He emphasizes it is a public health issue.

Records show Santa Clara County has received more than 300 complaints over the last 5 months many citing foodborne illness such as confirmed cases of salmonella and e-coli, as well as complaints of roaches and worms found in food.

To view the database of complaints, click here.

A study done by UCLA professor Phillip Leslie in 2003 showed food borne illnesses in Los Angeles County decreased 28.8% in the three years after letter grading of restaurants was implemented.

He claims it gives restaurants an incentive to get clean and allows customers to make an informed choice.

“They could do a lot more to help consumers understand what they are finding in their inspections,” Leslie said.

And other counties have done so, successfully. San Francisco has a point system, Alameda County a color system, San Mateo uses “excellent, good, fair” and Los Angeles grades restaurants. All require the information to be posted on site.

Simitian tells NBC Bay Area he has requested information from the county on possible ideas to improve its current system. He expects to hear back by the end of next month.

Now, in Santa Clara County, the only thing standing between getting inspections out of the filing cabinet and in front of customers: three votes.

“The real question is what three members of our five member board will support when it comes time to make some choices,” Simitian said.

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