Investigation highlights problems with restaurant inspections

Fryer in a restaurant

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — State law requires counties inspect Indiana’s nearly 12,000 restaurants twice a year. But even when inspectors find mouse droppings, flies and raw meat stored at the wrong temperature, customers might have a hard time finding out about it, an I-Team 8 investigation found.

I-Team 8 took a hidden camera into Central Indiana restaurants asking for copies of inspection reports. In four counties, the majority of restaurants wouldn’t provide a report when I-Team 8 asked to see it. Six of eight restaurants refused. One restaurant said, “I don’t have them.”

Here’s a look at some of the other responses:

“That would be like giving out confidential information.”
  • Fast food restaurant on Maryland Street in downtown Indianapolis: “Unfortunately I can’t give those to you. You can go to the health department web site.”
  • Chinese restaurant near the IUPUI campus: “I don’t have one. My boss (is) not here. I don’t know.”
  • Pizza place in Hancock County: “No, because I know they put it in the paper.”
  • Breakfast place in Greenwood: “No, you’d have to go through corporate for that.” Corporate didn’t return repeated phone calls or emails to I-Team 8.
  • Fast food restaurant in Fishers: “That would be like giving out confidential information.” I-Team 8 asked again, since the inspection reports are public record. The employee called her boss. On the phone she asked, “So we as a store just can’t show him? That’s what I was thinking.” She then turned to I-Team 8 and said, “No, she said you just have to look online.”

That’s the problem. Of the four counties I-Team 8 visited, only three post restaurant inspections online: Marion, Hamilton and Johnson counties. But that doesn’t mean they are current. Johnson County stopped posting them a year ago due to a staffing shortage.

Even when inspectors have found critical violations, state law mandates counties wait 10 days before making any of those results public.

(REPORT CONTINUES BELOW IMAGE)

Restaurant Inspection Release Dates
Even if there is a critical problem, a restaurant inspection isn’t posted online for 10 days.

I-Team 8 took the issue to Indiana State Sen. Vaneta Becker, who was part of the committee that wrote the 10-day rule 20 years ago as a then state representative. She said no one had ever challenged the 10-day rule since, despite most other states not having such a policy.

“It could be that we could change the time from 10 to five (days),” Becker said. “It’s just never been brought up since that time.”

Indiana inspections haven’t kept up with technology.

“You didn’t even have the internet,”  Becker said of writing the law 20 years ago. “You had to look at everything on paper, and it was very difficult to have much input into the process. It’s much different now.”

Restaurant Inspection Grade Posted in NYC
Some governments require restaurants to post their inspection grades at the front of their business. In this photo, a New York City restaurant is displaying their letter grade in a window.

Some states post letter grades A-F right in the front window. Indiana doesn’t. I-Team 8 checked the policies of all 50 states and Washington, D.C.  Six states require restaurants turn over inspection reports to customers. Many more leave it up to the counties. In South Carolina, grades are posted as a decal in the restaurant immediately after the inspection. Some states like Mississippi you can check restaurant inspections as you walk in on a smartphone app.

“It certainly could be something we could look at,” Becker said. She told I-Team 8 she will be discussing this with her fellow lawmakers in the statehouse.

Yale law professor Daniel Ho studied a half million restaurant inspections from around the country. He said posting letter grades in restaurants cuts down on hospitalizations from food-borne illness.  New York City launched the A-F window decals in 2011. The health department said in the first six months the city went from only 27 percent earning an A grade to 40 percent. Among New Yorkers, 88 percent said they consider those grades when they choose where to eat.

Although Indiana doesn’t post grades, I-Team 8 found two restaurants in the metro area that readily handed over their inspections.

“Why make you go through all that work to dig that stuff up when we have it right here?”

The manager at Culver’s in Noblesville immediately said, “I can give you our most recent one, sir,” when I-Team 8 asked for an inspection report.

At Pizza King in Cumberland an employee said, “Yes! They’re supposed to be right here.”

It’s company policy at both Culvers and Pizza King.

“That’s why we have to keep them here,” the Pizza King employee said. “It has to be open to the public, so people can look at it.”

Culvers keeps a copy handy. In fact, the manager said his restaurant helped with Hamilton County Health Department’s online system.

“They post all the health inspections too because we helped them set up the program,” the manager said.

Culver’s owner Jeff Meyer said keeping the inspections on-site is about customer convenience.

“You can log on online and see for yourself, so why make you go through all that work to dig that stuff up when we have it right here?” Meyer.

Other restaurants don’t have the same philosophy, banking on customers having to dig for the information online or at the county health department. A bar/restaurant in Fishers refused I-Team 8’s request, saying, “We have printed copies but we don’t normally (use them) because they are available online.”

See How Other States Handle Inspection Grades

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