On Wednesday, Aug. 8, Dallas City Council passed a new ordinance that will partially address failings in the city’s food inspection system. The ordinance divides food establishments by risk level in an attempt to ease high workloads that are burdening inspectors.
Food service locations, including restaurants, school cafeterias and convenience stores, will now be categorized in three risk levels. Level One denotes “an establishment with no cooking processes of any kind,” the ordinance states. Level Two is an establishment that heats and serves pre-packaged foods or otherwise has minimal kitchen facilities. Restaurants and other establishments that cook food from scratch will fall under Level Three.
Risk Level Three businesses will be inspected every six months, as they have been in the past, while the other two risk levels will see inspector visits less often: once a year for Level Two, and once every two years for Level One. When businesses open, change ownership or undergo major overhauls, the city will visit to determine their risk level.
The ordinance’s other changes are minor, including a reduction to standard inspection fees assessed to all businesses and a change in terminology for farmers’ markets. But the main purpose is to reduce workload for city inspectors by allowing them to spend more time working at high-risk facilities. Although visiting even a low-risk establishment once every 24 months means taking a certain risk, inspectors can use the extra time to conduct more follow-up visits to failing restaurants. In recent years, follow-up visits have frequently been conducted late, or not at all.
Other problems with Dallas food inspections were not addressed in the new ordinance, which passed by verbal vote without discussion or dissent. City Council did not act on the Observer’s finding of widespread grade inflation in inspection scores, nor did it increase the fine assessed on a failing business, which has been slashed from $380 to $71 in recent years as part of a pro-business deregulation push.
Some local restaurants, such as Gung Ho on Greenville Avenue, still display inspection scores from prior to opening, due to a software glitch that preserves scores from closed businesses after new ones open at the same address.
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And City Council has yet to discuss the idea of requiring establishments to post their scores on signs in a window, door or other public manner. Signage adopted by cities like New York, Los Angeles and Toronto has been correlated in studies with greater odds that failing restaurants adopt proper hygiene, and even with reductions in salmonella cases.
Dallas food inspection managers oppose a “scores on the doors” program because they believe customers should read full inspection reports rather than trusting the city’s numerical grades. Full reports are available only on the Dallas Open Data website or by asking a restaurant manager in person.
The Dallas Morning News recently introduced a searchable inspection database, and review website Yelp rolled out a service that shows restaurants’ inspection scores on their Yelp pages. Although Yelp initially appeared to display a number of outdated scores for local businesses, the error has been corrected.
The main problem for both Yelp and the Morning News is with the city itself: As of Aug. 9, no new food inspections had been added to the city’s online database in a week.