The Hawaii State Department of Health has launched a new online portal that lets consumers see how Hawaii restaurants and other food service organizations fare in food safety inspections, starting first with Oahu inspection data.
Access to data from food safety inspection reports, complete with descriptions of violations, gives consumers a behind-the-scenes glimpse at food safety and sanitation practices — or a lack of them — at the food outlets they frequent.
“We’re taking transparency to an entirely new level,” said Peter Oshiro, who manages the food safety inspection program. “Information from the inspection reports empowers consumers and informs their choices.”
If you type in a street name, all of the restaurants on that street will appear. Data from more than 7,000 inspections is already available.
“For the health department, I think this is a real milestone reached to have a project. This takes a lot of effort and a lot of work,” Oshiro said.
For example, a search for Paalaa Kai Bakery reveals its last inspection took place Nov. 6, 2015. The bakery in Waialua received the department’s first “red” card in October.
After working with the department, the business received a green card on Nov. 3 and subsequent checks.
However, the health inspector still found some violations despite the green rating, such as “Food Stored In Warmer In Restroom–Corrected On Site” and “Logs Not Properly Filled Out, Insufficient Equipment Used For Rapid Cooling.”
The website lists each inspection, and a link to the full report and findings.
The online portal, which has taken nearly a year to develop and refine, is a companion component to the Hawaii State Department of Health’s placard program, which was launched in July 2014. Under the placard program, food outlets are given a green, yellow or red placards, and are required to post them in visible location at their entrances.
The color-coded placards indicate whether a food establishment has passed its health inspection, received a conditional pass, or has been closed due to permit suspension. Restaurants are fined for not posting them.
Oshiro says the system is working. Only three restaurants have gotten the red card and were forced to temporarily shut their doors.
“That’s the whole point of the system, is to get voluntary compliance through social pressure, so the whole thing is how businesses change their behavior based on government transparency and this is what we think the formula is,” Oshiro said.
“Our observant inspectors are capturing every detail for their reports using established science-based criteria,” he added. “With this degree of disclosure, we believe the online reports will make restaurants and other food service organizations pay closer attention to their food safety and sanitation practices.”
Just as the publicly posted placards provide an incentive for restaurants and other food service organizations to rectify any food-handling or other safety issues, the publicly available data from the inspection reports are expected to motivate restaurants to take a closer look at their own practices since these reports become a permanent, historical record accessible to the public.
How long does it usually takes restaurants that get yellow cards to fix their violations? Oshiro says it’s usually within a couple of days. “The more transparent you are as a government agency, I think we help the public, and the regulated industry can really help police themselves so there’s not such a regulatory interference to force people to do things that they already are supposed to do,” he said.
Oshiro’s team has manually posted all of the previous Oahu inspections to the public portal and currently has nearly 7,000 inspection reports in the database. This represents about 80 percent of all the inspections completed statewide since the program began in July 2014. Oshiro anticipates the remaining Oahu inspection reports will be uploaded by May 2016. Past neighbor island inspections will be uploaded by the end of the year. Going forward, all inspection reports from all islands will be posted in near real-time, depending upon the availability of secure, wireless access.
The price tag for the website is about $98,000 to create the site, and $60,000 a year to maintain. The entire cost is paid by restaurants through fees with no cost to taxpayers.
More than 10,000 food establishments statewide prepare or serve food and require a Department of Health permit to operate their business. There are roughly 6,000 such establishments on Oahu, 1,800 on Hawaii Island, 1,700 on Maui, and 700 on Kauai. This includes restaurants, hotels, caterers, food warehouses, markets, convenience stores, lunch wagons, push carts, and institutional kitchens for healthcare facilities, schools, adult and child day care centers, and prisons.
The Hawaii State Department of Health began posting color-coded placards as part of the state’s “Food Safety Code” (Hawaii Administrative Rules, Title 11, Chapter 50, Food Safety Code) adopted in 2014. The placards are posted after each health inspection is completed at every food establishment that holds a Department of Health permit.