Diners across the country can check sanitary conditions at local restaurants with the click of a button, as more health departments post food inspections online. But not in Minnesota.
Minnesota is the only state where no health departments publish restaurant inspection results online. More than three-quarters of the U.S. population now live in areas where the data are posted, according to Hazel Analytics, a Seattle-based firm that compiles inspection data. The Twin Cities is alone among the country’s 20 largest metro areas in lacking this information.
“I think we have a right to know when [restaurants] are not living up to those expectations that we have,” said Ben Brausen, a digital marketer who lives in Minneapolis. “A website alone seems kind of almost bare minimum.”
Food inspections are public in Minnesota, but available only upon request. As a result, the public rarely sees them, and there is typically no online notice in the rare cases when sanitary conditions are so bad that inspectors force a restaurant to close. Minneapolis shut down a restaurant last year, for example, after discovering 40 dead cockroaches near a meat market area and others alive in sticky traps. One St. Paul fast food restaurant’s kitchen was so covered in grease, grime and food debris that the Minnesota Department of Health yanked its license earlier this month after months of warnings. Both restaurants are now operating again after correcting the problems.
More than two dozen local agencies and the state inspect restaurants in Minnesota — under the Health Department’s authority. Minneapolis health officials said in 2016 that they would begin posting the reports, but postponed it because of an internal IT overhaul. They are restarting the effort this year, but don’t know when it will be finished.
Several other large metro-area agencies said they have no similar plans. Angie Cyr, the Health Department’s acting program manager for food, pools and lodging services, said she has not seen evidence that posting reports improves food safety or reduces foodborne illnesses.
“We do recognize that there’s a desire by some people to be able to go online and see those inspection reports,” Cyr said. “But we don’t think it’s the wisest use of our public health dollars to do that.”
University of Minnesota Prof. Craig Hedberg, who studies foodborne illnesses, said the research is limited but increasingly shows a link between disclosure and improved public health. Hedberg recently co-authored a study showing that posting food safety letter grades on New York City restaurants helped reduce salmonella infections.
“If disclosing information to the public is changing behavior in restaurants that makes them work better and reduce the burden of illness, that should be in everybody’s interest,” Hedberg said. “I think that there’s a growing body of evidence that suggests that it does.”
Data need context
Several health officials said their concern with posting the data is that it needs explanation, since inspection reports are merely a snapshot in time listing problems for the restaurant to correct before a reinspection.
“Does that tell a customer who looks at a report from eight months ago what the sanitary condition of the restaurant is? No, unless they’re perpetually in tough shape,” said Zack Hansen, Ramsey County’s environmental health director. “My focus is making sure we get out there and we get our job done and bring establishments into compliance.”
Agencies elsewhere have developed creative ways to provide that context. King County, which oversees Seattle restaurants, gives one of four ratings — with smiley faces accompanying the best ones — based on the average number of high-risk violations over the last several inspections.
Minneapolis Environmental Health Director Dan Huff said aggressive inspections reveal more problems to correct, similar to a company that undergoes a major audit. U.S. Bank Stadium fared poorly in a recent analysis ranking food safety at U.S. sports stadiums, for example, but Huff said it was because his team checked extensively in preparation for the Super Bowl. The violations were fixed.
“I would say U.S. Bank Stadium is probably one of the safest stadiums in the country to eat at,” Huff said. “Because we really crawled all over it.”
By contrast, he said, some cities who post letter grades face pressure to hand out mostly A’s.
“It’s like Lake Wobegon,” Huff said. “It could be that, ‘Yeah, they are really all above average.’ Or it could be, ‘No, we’re just making it look like they’re all above average.’ ”
Huff’s agency ordered the emergency closure of four restaurants last year. One was Katar River Restaurant and Bakery at 2751 Minnehaha Av., where inspectors “observed approximately 40 deceased cockroaches in meat market area.” Owner Sara Wordofa disputed the findings, saying there were only four dead roaches, though the city confirmed the number and said it has photographs. Katar corrected the problem before reopening.
Wordofa said it would not be fair to post inspection reports online.
“Posting is like negative advertising on the business. Completely,” Wordofa said. “Because people think … all the time it is like that, even if you correct it.”
The Health Department closed down a Burger King on Grand Avenue in St. Paul earlier this month for grease and grime in the kitchen. The restaurant’s general manager referred inquiries to a district manager, who did not return a message seeking comment.
Minnesota’s new food code, which went into effect this year, highlights particularly risky violations. The state switched from the binary terms “critical” and “noncritical” to describe violations as Priority 1, 2 or 3. Priority 1 violations are most likely to cause foodborne illnesses, such as storing food at improper temperatures.
State health officials said about three-quarters of the 64 documented foodborne illness outbreaks last year occurred in restaurants. Many of those were due to sick employees handling the food.
‘The public’s data’
Minnesota has become the last online holdout as other states like Arkansas have come online in recent years, based on research by Hazel Analytics. The firm gathers public reports from around the country and standardizes them so clients, largely national restaurant chains, can track food safety results around the country.
Some jurisdictions post only a restaurant’s score or grade, though most of them post the specific violations and some additional context. Hazel’s research shows that after Minnesota, Maine and Massachusetts have the smallest share of their populations covered by online health departments — though the city of Boston posts reports.
“It’s bewildering I think to most people like our customers and ourselves included that places like … Minneapolis and St. Paul aren’t online,” said Hazel CEO Arash Nasibi.
Minneapolis is committed to changing that, Huff said, pledging to work this year to getting the reports posted.
“The philosophy we go under is, ‘These are not our data. These are the public’s data,’ ” Huff said.