A state audit published last week showed that hundreds of serious health code violations identified by food safety inspectors in New York State have continued without any fine, penalty, or follow-up action from food safety officials.
New York state officials identified 984 Class I violations – the most serious classification indicating an immediate health threat to restaurant patrons. Of these Class I violations, 73 percent showed no record of follow-up or enforcement action. Presumably, the unsafe conditions continue to endanger consumers as we speak.
New York Report Has Nationwide Significance
Though the report of these violations applies specifically to the state of New York, its implications are arguably applicable across the country. Just because egregious violations of food safety aren’t making headlines does not mean they are not happening. With numerous reported outbreaks of foodborne illness related to items sold in grocery stores and restaurants, food safety is a topic of great concern.
This report is important for all American consumers because it may indicate a systemic problem of unsafe food culture across the country. Have you ever checked into how your favorite grocery stores or restaurants are graded on health and food safety inspections? Check here to find food safety inspection reports for your local area.
The Breadth of Food Safety Violations in New York
The nearly one thousand Class I food safety violations studied in the report are not the only violations, but rather are a sample of the most extreme violations, endangering consumer health in New York. The violations in the report included:
- Failure to properly refrigerate food
- Allowing food to be handled by sick employees
- Evidence of food contamination
- Evidence of pests
In the time period covered in the report, January, 2014 to September, 2018, New York state food safety inspectors identified more than 1.2 million unsanitary and dangerous violations in the more than 96,000 restaurant, bars, and cafeterias they monitor.
In the words of the New York state official who ordered the report, the lack of penalty or follow-up for food safety violations of this sort is a “recipe for disaster.” Though health department and other state officials blame a lack of funding or staff errors on the lack of follow-up and penalties, there is really no excuse for a regulatory agency to identify dangerous food safety violations and then fail to see them corrected.
Many workers in the food service industry earn minimum wage or less, relying on tips for their income. It is possible that the stressful conditions and variable pay fosters a culture of nonchalance about food safety among restaurant employees.
Food Safety in Restaurants
Every community has different standards and methods of grading businesses that serve food, but all across the country, regulatory agencies exist to protect consumers from food safety violations. Though all inspectors look for the basic safeguards that protect patrons from illness and contamination, inspections may differ on:
- The timing and frequency of inspections
- The type of inspection
- The style of scoring or grading system used to rate the result of the inspection
- The manner in which results are displayed to the public
- The manner in which the results are published for public perusal
Regardless of the variation in the ways officials inspect and report on businesses that sell food, inspectors all have the same goal – to identify and correct any food safety violations that are a hazard to consumers.
Examples of the food safety standards defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) that most inspectors look for are:
- Ensuring employees regularly wash hands at a sink that has hot water, soap, and paper towels
- Ensuring sick employees who would ordinarily be in contact with food are sent home, especially employees sick with symptoms of foodborne illnesses such as vomiting and diarrhea
- Ensuring utensils and surfaces that touch raw meat, poultry, or shellfish do not also touch prepared foods
- No sign of rodents or other pests
- Use of food obtained from a safe source
- Food stored a safe temperature to prevent the spread of foodborne illness
- Food cooked properly, especially meat, poultry, pork, and eggs
If you eat in a restaurant or purchase food from a source that seems to have lax food safety standards, you can call the local health department to report your observations. This will usually trigger a surprise inspection for the establishment. If you experience any foodborne illness symptoms that require medical attention, be sure to contact a food safety attorney as well to discuss your rights.
Food Safety Scores
All businesses that serve food should be inspected and should display their food safety score publicly in some way. Scoring systems vary and may be a numerical score, a letter grade score (A, B, C, etc,), or a pass/fail. Restaurant patrons who travel should be aware of the different food safety scores in the location of their destination.
Food safety scores are commonly displayed in the following ways:
- The vendor publicly posts full inspection reports, showing all violations and corrective actions taken.
- The business publicly posts their rating in an easy-to-see location like a front window or bulletin board, but does not publish their full inspection.
- A health department or other agency posts or publishes full inspection reports online or elsewhere. Many health departments actually publish inspection results in a local publication, which is useful for locals, but will likely not provide timely warning.
- A health department or other agency posts only business ratings online or elsewhere.
If you don’t immediately notice an inspection report or score on display in a restaurant, ask a manager to see the most recent inspection report, especially if you have concerns about food safety in the establishment.
If you would rather avoid a confrontation of sorts, the local regulatory agency should be able to provide inspection reports. The reports may even be available online. The DHHS publishes a Directory of State and Local Food Safety Officials that should help you track down an inspection report, no matter where you are, or what sort of establishment you are looking into.
Report Foodborne Illness
Many people who contract a foodborne illness from eating in a restaurant or purchasing prepared food from a grocery store don’t report their experience. Public health officials rely on reports from the public to effectively target their limited resources and take action.
For consumers, that means getting out of the common mindset that it won’t “do any good” to file a report. Consumers should report any of the following common signs of foodborne illness:
- Painful stomach cramps
- Diarrhea, usually bloody
It is only through consumer reports that public health officials can identify problems and put a stop to them before they become an outbreak.
Speak to a Food Safety Attorney
Businesses that serve food are rigorously regulated and inspected because Americans have a right to eat food that won’t make them sick. Lax food safety practices that make consumers sick enough to warrant medical treatment are not acceptable.
If you or a loved one has been hospitalized or needed other medical treatment for food poisoning or other foodborne illnesses, learn more about your legal rights. The attorneys at Bad Food Recall can help you determine the source of your illness and who may be liable. Schedule your free consultation by calling 1-877-543-5750, or submit our online contact form.