How to Make Food Inspections More Useful? Make Restaurants Inspect Themselves.

Pete Snyder knows a little bit about food-borne illness. In addition to earning a doctorate in Food Science and Safety, he owns his own company that helps retail food operations improve their safety. NBC featured him in the report that uncovered Dallas' failed code compliance system. He's the one that called the city's food inspection program bogus.

Snyder told me that many cities are having similar problems, and the issue is not likely to go away. He cited the same challenges we wrote about after talking to Dr. Wendy Chung: that food-borne illness outbreaks are really hard to track, and most people don't really care about them as much as they do roads, crime, taxes and other issues challenging municipal and state budgets.

So I asked Snyder: If Dallas' and other city's code inspection departments have limited resources and are unable to inspect restaurants twice a year, how should they go about prioritizing their efforts? He says it's not about inspecting the restaurants at all. The solution, instead, is turning every restaurant into an inspector.

The current system deploys inspectors to inspect restaurants. They turn in inspection reports, and those reports are the measure of their efforts. Snyder says that along with examining a refrigerator, for instance, an inspector should be interviewing employees, asking them what temperature the refrigerator should be operating.

The idea makes sense. Instead of focusing on sinks and dumpsters and food temperatures, focus on the people who have the ability to monitor them every day. The effort would effectively turn every restaurant manager into an mini-inspector and weed out employees who have the potential to create risks.

So far, according to Snyder, no municipalities have embraced an employee-focused model, but the recent scandal in Dallas City Hall could provide the catalyst for change. In 1997, journalist Joel Grover uncovered egregious violations at many restaurants in Los Angeles County. That reporting not only closed a handful of establishments but eventually led the Health Department to adopt the new letter grade scoring system that it still uses today.

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