Bill Knight | Less is more? Sometimes, less is just less.



It was the eve of “Sunshine Week” – a few days in March when government transparency and accountability are celebrated – when a glance at the Peoria City/County Health Department’s online “Food Inspection Scores” found a list of inspections but no scores.

Citing state action based on U.S. Food and Drug Administration model food codes, some health departments no longer score inspections based on a 100-point system, instead focusing on Risk Factors. But the presence or absence of risks doesn’t appear in a numerical format. Peoria now notes that staffers inspected certain establishments on specific dates, but instead of scores, their visits are labeled “routine” or “re-check.” (Inspector comments may appear in a “deep dive” into web-posted details, but it’s less convenient than the easily understood number the public used to get.)
“Inspections will not indicate any scores, but there will be inspection narratives for all violations marked for all of 2018,” says Carey A. Panier, the assistant director of environmental health at Peoria’s health department. “This is something new for everybody.”

Tazewell’s health department also dropped scoring, but other counties – Fulton, Knox and Woodford – for the moment still report numerical scores.

OK, maybe people don’t care. Like chaos in the Capitol, it might seem far removed from our lives.

Or, maybe people don’t remember.

In October of 1983, I worked as a stringer for United Press International, covering some of the aftermath from a terrible botulism outbreak, an incident stemming from contaminated food at the Skewer Inn restaurant at Northwoods Mall. It resulted in 28 people severely sickened and probably contributed to one fatality. Suffering from blurred vision, trouble breathing, slurred speech and a loss of feeling, several victims had to be hospitalized for weeks, relying on ventilators to survive.

Botulism is a debilitating toxin that’s relatively rare, occurring about 140 times annually in the country, with some 15 percent linked to eating contaminated food. Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traced the source of the Skewer Inn toxin to sauteed onions.

No one knows exactly how this could have been avoided, of course, but for decades it’s been reassuring that health departments’ diligent inspectors check out food establishments for safety and sanitation and make numerical scores based on inspection available for the public’s information.

Until now.

The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and local health authorities aren’t being malicious or secretive. Officials seem concerned with efficiency and consistency as well as public health. Peoria’s Board of Health made the final decision, according to Health Department spokeswoman Diana Scott, and presumably the 11-member panel acted in good faith. (Full disclosure: Two members were Community Word business manager Joyce Harant and one of the newspaper’s co-owners, Sharon Williams.)

Local health departments are caught in the middle.

“The 100-point scoring system never gave a truly accurate picture of how an establishment was doing overall for various reasons,” Panier says. “It was skewed. Take an establishment with a score in the mid-90s. Most may think they’ve done fairly well, when in actuality they are more at risk for causing foodborne illnesses because they have several temperature violations which are directly associated with foodborne illnesses.”

But one wonders whether IDPH bureaucrats thought this through. If radio listeners seek results of a ballgame, they need at least the SCORE, not just that it happened. They can read a newspaper for details like hits and errors, but a score is the starting point. Likewise, if you get a physical and your blood pressure is 140/90 you need such NUMBERS, not just a reference to diet, exercise and medicine. Finally, TV viewers watching a business report that Wall Street boomed or busted want to know HOW MUCH to get one indication of the economy.

Indeed, it’s not accountable for establishments or health departments to acknowledge the possibility of violations without disclosing their existence, prevalence or nature.

Panier concedes a difficult adjustment – that’s continuing.

“At first, I thought, ‘Oh, no’,” she says, “but now I think it eventually will be more transparent.

“We have no choice,” she continues. The State is “proposing to … only account for the total number of risk-factor violations and total number of repeat risk-factor violations. Additionally, as of July 1, 2018, the inspection system/report form will be vastly different, and should be more transparent as to the overall condition of an establishment than the current inspection system.”

The State telling departments they have the right to disclose less doesn’t mean it is right, and reducing risk is good; but why not make public who’s succeeding, who’s not and those in the process of improving? Officials can either make what’s going on clear and concise to everyday people or confuse or conceal reality.

“We are working with our software company to see if it is feasible to provide columns with additional information on the establishment inspection lookup page to show number of critical violations,” Panier says. “It’s so challenging, to say the least. We’re trying. We’re doing our best.”

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