The Challenges of Chicago’s Food Inspection Process

by Brian Mleczko and Camilla Skowronek

Photo by Camilla Skowronek

The Belmont Redline Stop

Photo from Wikipedia Commons

Meat inspection in Chicago – 1906

Restaurant customers want their food prepared the right way. At the very least, their expectations are that meals should be made in a clear and sanitary kitchen, with non-expired ingredients.

The Chicago Department of Public Health is responsible for keeping restaurants honest with their food production practices. So how many inspections are done per year and how are they done? What do inspectors look for? And is enough being done to keep food safe?

The Chicago Health Department’s dataset on food inspections (available for public viewing at their data portal website) provides some of the answers. Before going into some of the challenges that both the Health Department and restaurant owners face, It would be best to briefly clarify how the data is organized.

Any, and all, food providing establishments are ranked by the total risk of food contamination. Risk 1, meaning high risk, to Risk 3, meaning low risk. This does not mean that high-risk locations will most likely have contaminated food. Rather, that the establishment must take greater precautions in handling food products. The Health Department will send an inspector to a higher risk location more often than a low-risk one.

So what does the process look like in the real world? There is no doubt that the Chicago Health Department strives to ensure safe food practices. They have been experiencing some problems, however. According to the 2016 Inspector General Report on the Chicago Health Department, there has been a staff resource problem and has caused the department to miss its legal number of inspections per risk rating.

The report reads, “we found that CDPH (Chicago Department of Public Health) inspected only 3,566, or 43.9 percent, of high-risk establishments at least twice in 2015; only 2,478, or 80.1 percent, of medium-risk establishments at least once in 2015; and only 1,078, or 24.8 percent, of low-risk establishments at least once in 2014 or 2015.”

According to CDPH rules, inspections are to occur once every six months per food establishment, however, if there is a complaint against a certain establishment, the health department promptly, and in a timely manner, investigates and follows up with another inspection. Every inspection, except when obtaining a license, is a surprise inspection, meaning that restaurants must always be kept up to code or risk being caught in violation of health codes and laws.

While the numbers from the report are concerning, it also mentioned that re-inspections are always done when needed. Still, the challenges that the CDPH faces is made apparent by the Inspector General. With the lack of funds needed to support the current inspection schedule, the Inspector General proposes a more concrete and refined schedule to make up for the small amount of manpower.

Understanding how the process works can help explain why certain restaurants receive the ratings they do, the facts behind the data can shed light on it.

Here is an interactive Google My Maps of all restaurant inspections.

Photo by Brian Mleczko

Belmont Avenue

When speaking with multiple managers of a number of different restaurants in the Lakeview area, they offered insight into what happens behind the scenes of a food inspection. Matt Hew, of Beef Shack, and Tierra Hubbard, of Big & Littles, shared their thoughts on the process, food safety, sanitation and more. The management who all underwent these inspections believed that the process was fair, stating that customers health is important.

Although the process may be deemed fair by these restaurant managers, the fines are seen as steep to all. No matter how small a violation, a $500 fine is the standard penalty per violation.

The data shows that many restaurants can accumulate a lot of violations and have to pay out a large sum of money in fines. One example was a story from one restaurant manager, who didn’t want to be named. The restaurant in the Lakeview area had a tap break the day of the inspection. This tap was only one of three in the establishment and although a mechanic was called and on the way, the inspector fined the restaurant $500.

The lack of staff resources, not doubt, corresponds with a lack of funding as the Inspector General report suggests. It could be assumed that heavy fines result from the need to supply more money for the Chicago Health Department.

The ratings and grades can be displayed in the restaurant, however much of the management said that their ratings do not seem to affect business and that their popularity depends rather on their food. It seems that the businesses do whatever they can to appease health inspectors, in order to not pay fines, but when it comes to the customer it is in their best interest to keep their food sanitary.

Even though every establishment that undergoes the process has to risk receiving these fines, Tierra explained that there is always a chance to redeem yourself.

She states her support of the food inspection process overall by stating “It’s a good business, as long as the inspectors are reasonable, it’s a good thing.”

Matt Hew and Tierra Hubbard made it obvious that they are dedicated to providing a happy, healthy and clean environment to make the experience for the customer thoroughly enjoyable. One of the restaurant’s who’d rather stay anonymous stated that their chain has a rule of reaching a score of at least 85/100 in order to be kept up and running. However, they always strive to even surpass that goal and to get the best score possible.

Matt from Beef Shack explains their readiness for inspections by saying, “We always keep everything on top,” reassuring that health and food safety is a top priority for them.

More information on how the Chicago Health Department organizes their food inspections can be found on their website.

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