Last year, nearly half of the restaurants in Boston were cited by city inspectors for two of the most serious health and sanitary code violations on the books, and about 200 were written up for 10 or more violations, according to a Globe analysis of municipal records published this week. But until reporter Matt Rocheleau’s story, most of these establishments’ customers had no idea they were at risk of becoming ill.
Technically, the information had been available to the public prior to the Globe report. The city publishes an online spreadsheet listing restaurant inspection results, which can be accessed through something called the Mayor’s Food Court, a web portal created in 2001. The site — which is ancient in tech years — also allows users to a search for inspection data by restaurant name. Never heard of it? You have plenty of company.
Lauren Lockwood, the city’s first chief digital officer, knows that’s a problem. “We’re focusing on the distinction of making things available versus accessible,” she said. “The city now makes a truly tremendous amount of information available online; the problem is that the access is user unfriendly.”
Many of the 2014 violations at Boston restaurants were minor, but about a quarter of them were serious enough to potentially cause food-borne illnesses. Best Barbecue Kitchen in Chinatown was the worst offender, according to the Globe analysis. It tallied the highest number of serious violations — 70. It also topped the list for overall violations, with 219. It’s hard to believe many of the restaurant’s customers wouldn’t have reconsidered their dining choice if that information had been widely known before they ordered.
A better designed and promoted online database to replace the Mayor’s Food Court would be welcome. But given the serious public health considerations, technology that doesn’t necessarily require the intervention of an IT department should also be used to spread word about sanitary code violations. For instance, the city could send out a weekly e-mail bulletin that lists the latest citations.
Boston should also follow the lead of New York and San Francisco, which require restaurants to post a health code compliance grade where everyone can see. Under New York’s letter grade system, which was enacted in 2010, violations are translated into points. Fewer points mean a higher grade.
William Christopher, the city’s commissioner of inspectional services, concedes that information about restaurant code violations needs to be “more fluid.” Under the existing regulations, Boston doesn’t fine restaurants for violations, but it can temporarily suspend a license until problems have been resolved.
Christopher said he is considering ratings for Boston restaurants, but is not sure when such a system might be put in place. He should make it a priority. The threat of a poor ranking plastered in the window would surely motivate violators to clean up fast. When it comes to public health, an A for effort isn’t enough. Diners need to know where it’s safe to eat before they take their first bite.