The relevance of Marvin

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Kudos to Eileen Faxas of KHOU’s Defenders for her story about making health department inspections public.

This week, 11 News Defenders revealed how City Hall quashed plans to publicize health inspections by putting them online.

The Health Department wanted to post them online, but the Houston Restaurant Association is against it.

Consumer Reporter Eileen Faxas paid a visit to the Association, and got some interesting answers.

Houston Restaurant Association Director Juli Salvagio is quoted throughout the story.

When asked if these were public records that the public should be able to see, Salvagio agreed that they were public, and said she felt like the public already had access to them.

The city couldn’t agree more.

“Call the health department and you can get the information you need,” says Trahan.

The reality is that if you want to see an actual health inspection, you have to fax a request to the Health Department, wait about a week, go pick it up and pay 12.5 cents a page.

Talk about cumbersome. The spokesperson seems to think the system is fine as it is, and maybe it is. One could argue city inspectors do all this for us. We don’t have to peek behind kitchen doors because they get paid to do it for us. They inspect, they check, they fine, they close. These threats should suffice. It isn’t the point though. I wonder if restaurants would be more interested in compliance if a more public accounting took place. A real financial consequence (fewer customers) to serving off-temp food, ill-stored food, not being careful about separating food prep areas, or not keeping things clean might serve compliance more than the threat of a ticket here and there. It’s something anyone who’s gotten up at three in the morning with more than a little tummy ache should be interested in seeing.

“We have a great, great dining out city,” she says.

What does this mean exactly? Isn’t it nonsensical for the spokesperson of the local restaurant association to respond to a serious inquiry like this with this sentence? And if all she’s interested in doing is glossing and trumpeting, how much more could we trumpet the restaurant industry in this city if the restaurants didn’t mind opening their kitchen doors and letting us take a look inside? How about: we have a great, great dining out city…with restaurants that really care about the food they serve their customers. Has a little better punch to it.

Sadly, the easiest way consumers get any information about inspections is the local news station that puts up weekly restaurant reports. It’s easy (too easy) to knock the goofiness of some of these news crusaders and their restaurant reports, but without these reports and token clean-restaurant certificates, we would know nothing about restaurants that have issues and ones that don’t. They’re sensational and ridiculous, but it’s all consumers have right now. contributor and foodie, Anne Linehan, sent along the following website in an earlier private discussion. It can be done. Other cities are making the inspections public. A website would have to be clear as to what was being cited and then be clear if the violation had been fixed or not. And there would have to be some guard against abuse such as occurred here. Repeat, frivolous complaints would have to be stricken or kept from records somehow. Regardless, it is being done elsewhere.

The city health department seems to have no problem doing a website like this. It’s disheartening that City Hall and a local business group found the effort to be a waste.

(Update) Eileen Faxas has more on the topic.

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