County alters eatery safety rating system
Policy and software changes at the Mesa County Health Department will make it tougher for diners to know which local restaurants have passed food safety inspections with flying colors; and which, conversely, may not be the safest or cleanest.
After 20 years of publicly announcing the top performers, the Health Department has stopped awarding Blue Ribbons to restaurants and retail food establishments with perfect food safety inspection records. Health officials also are no longer posting online reports of inspections conducted prior to this year.
The last Blue Ribbon awards were handed out in February 2012 to eateries that were not cited for any food safety violations during any inspections the previous year. Routine, unannounced inspections will continue, according to Monique Mull, consumer protection program manager for the Health Department. But the only recognition the department will give in the future is tied to a new program, the Partnership for Food Safety.
The new program is voluntary and asks businesses to create a self-assessment of daily practices, write a list of policies for the Health Department to review and welcome inspectors to make an unannounced visit to make sure employees are following those procedures. At least 90 percent of employees have to go through food handler safety training as well to earn the title Partner for Food Safety. The partnership logo will be displayed in any restaurant or food vendor that gets the title.
The new program took a year to develop. Mull said the impetus for doing away with Blue Ribbon awards was to be “proactive instead of reactive” based on feedback from food establishments. She said some Blue Ribbon winners felt their stories were lumped in with stories of businesses who failed inspections and that “no one remembers the good.”
“The other part of it was they really felt it wasn’t an accurate picture of a good performer,” Mull said. “The program we came up with, the Partnership for Food Safety, focuses on the day-to-day, not just a snapshot, because we may hit them on their lucky day or their unlucky day (with a Blue Ribbon inspection).”
Nick-N-Willy’s Pizza at 683 Horizon Drive is one of the 43 local restaurants or food establishments that won one of the county’s last Blue Ribbons. Nick-N-Willy’s owner Janie VanWinkle said she appreciated positive attention that came from having a Blue Ribbon award. She plans to pursue a Partnership for Food Safety title to show customers Nick-N-Willy’s is still a safe place to eat.
“I think it’s important for the public to know that an establishment is meeting or exceeding criteria the Health Department has put in place for their safety,” VanWinkle said.
VanWinkle said her goal is to complete certification by the end of this year. She said she doesn’t see a big difference between Blue Ribbon awards and Partnership for Food Safety awards aside from having written policies.
“I don’t know that it will be better or worse, just a different process. We’ll know more in a year,” she said.
Pat Fenton, owner of J’s Philly Steaks at 930 North Ave., Suite 100, is also a past Blue Ribbon winner. He said Friday he had not heard about the change and was expecting to get a Blue Ribbon this year after a recent inspection. He said he will miss the honor.
“It was always nice to have. It’s good to know your kitchen is clean and healthy and you’re sending out good food,” Fenton said.
Another change this year is that inspection data from 2011 and earlier that had been available for public view on the Health Department’s website, health.mesacounty.us, has been wiped from the site to make way for new software. Mull said the new software will make it easier for health departments across the state to report uniform data to each other, but she said it would have been complicated to input old data into the new system so that information will not reappear online.
Data from health inspections that took place after Jan. 1, 2013, are available on the site. Data from 2012 were never posted because the software change was in transition. Old data only can be accessed in individual paper files at the Health Department.
Data had been posted for 77 businesses so far this year as of Friday, or 9 percent of all food establishments in Mesa County. At least one violation was found in 2013 at about two-thirds of those businesses. Although the title of the violation or violations is listed for each business on the Health Department’s website, descriptions delving into the details of each violation, which used to be available on the site, are absent with the new software.