As soon as anyone learns what Alisha Johnson does for a living, they almost immediately ask some variation of the same question: What restaurants should I avoid? Is [insert name of beloved greasy spoon] safe? Where shouldn't I eat lunch today?
"I get it all the time," says Johnson, who has spent nearly two years with the Missoula City-County Health Department conducting risk-based inspections of local restaurants. "My answer is simple: It's not our job to draw that line of where you should or shouldn't go. Our job is to educate and to regulate. We're a service to the public—to protect the public health and to help the restaurants be the best they can be. I tell people, if you want to come down here and look at the reports, you're welcome to do so. Judge for yourself."
We did exactly that. And we found Johnson makes an excellent point: Mainly, a lot more goes into Missoula's health inspection reports than a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down on your favorite eatery.
The Independent reviewed files on 227 local full-service restaurants, bars, groceries, bakeries and coffee shops. (We skipped coffee kiosks, temporary food vendors and manufacturers.) The review focused on the Health Department's searchable online database (available here), which details each restaurant and its violations dating from Oct. 1, 2008, to present. In instances where a restaurant accumulated a high number of violations, required a follow-up inspection or otherwise showed an anomaly in its online report, the Independent checked the establishment's extended history and each inspection's detailed notes in hardcopy files available at the Health Department's 301 W. Alder Street offices.
Overall, the review found only 15 percent of the establishments—or 34 of the 227—passed their most recent routine inspection without receiving at least one critical violation. The average number of critical violations came in at 3.1 per establishment, with one restaurant reaching a high of 12.
While those numbers may appear high, Johnson is quick to point out critical violations can be a misleading statistic.
"It is next to impossible to get away without a critical violation at a full-service restaurant," she explains. "I'm saying that not because the establishment is a poor operator, or because the food is unsafe. It's just that we conduct a risk-based assessment, and a full-service restaurant has a lot going on and more things that could go wrong."
Johnson says each inspection focuses on what's known as "The Big Five": inadequate cooking or holding temperatures, poor personal hygiene and handling, unsafe food sources, improper cleaning and sanitizing, and cross-contamination. In addition to these five main issues—known as "critical violations" on an inspection report—an inspector also looks for a series of lesser offenses that may not directly relate to food safety. All of this information gets noted and treated as a "snapshot" of the operation on that day. It also serves as a basis for teaching the establishment how to make improvements and avoid potential problems. Unlike a New York City health inspector, Johnson doesn't assign a letter grade to each inspection. Unlike Seattle, restaurants don't receive a final score to either tout or hide behind.
"We have operators who ask, 'Hey, what's my grade? Did I get an A? Did I get a high score?'" says Johnson. "It's more than a number. You'll see, a restaurant may only get one critical [violation], but if you read the report you may find it's actually quite a big deal."
In other words, you can't just microwave the data and serve up a list of safe and unsafe establishments. But you can learn a lot about what's going on in local restaurants—and how the Health Department deals with it—by reading the reports.
After a while, the majority of the inspection reports read like one long, nagging lecture from a concerned parent: wash your hands properly, don't leave food out, etc. Johnson and her three colleagues responsible for inspecting more than 1,400 local licensed establishments—that includes everything from public pools and trailer parks to full-service restaurants and the folks who hand out samples at Costco—would argue those hand-washing violations are vital to a safe establishment, but they hardly stand out.