Green, yellow and red may soon apply to more than traffic lights.
Those colors would telegraph how a restaurant or other food establishment fared in its most recent safety inspection, according to changes being proposed by the state Department of Health. The changes, along with significant increases in state inspection fees, will be the subject of public hearings in Hilo and Kona in early December.
The highly visible grading system would use placards posted in a public place that would be green, or “pass,” rating, yellow, or “conditional pass,” rating and red, or “closed.”
Green placards would go to food facilities that have one major violation or less that is corrected before the inspection is completed. Yellow placards would go to facilities that have two or more violations during an inspection regardless of whether the violations are corrected immediately. The yellow placard would stay up until a followup inspection shows the violations have been corrected.
A red placard will be posted if there are imminent health hazards warranting immediate closure, such as lack of water or electricity, sick employees or vermin infestations.
The changes were lauded by a local restaurateur whose father, well-known Honolulu lobbyist Richard Botti, was instrumental in improving food-safety legislation 15 years ago by making it more understandable to the public. The new color system could take it a step further, said Randy Botti, lead manager of Sam Choy’s Kai Lanai.
“I think this will make it better for the consumer to see, rather than having to go up and read a piece of paper,” Botti said Thursday. “It will bring clarity for the customer, but the fleshing out of the details in the inspection need to accompany that to bring clarity to the restaurant establishment, too.”
In conjunction with the new rating system, the health agency is also planning on hiring 13 new inspectors to further ensure eating establishments are inspected more frequently. Just two years ago, a shortage of inspectors meant some restaurants on Oahu were inspected as infrequently as once every 2 1/2 years, said Peter Oshiro, Sanitation Branch chief.
Some Oahu inspectors were struggling with caseloads of 600 restaurants each, while Maui inspectors had 400 to 500 establishments and Big Island inspectors had about 200 establishments each.
“The new food safety rules will mean a huge step forward for our program and will result in overall improvements by expanding food safety testing, pesticide monitoring of local produce and shellfish monitoring, among other activities that protect public health every day,” Oshiro said in a statement.
The additional staff will bring ratios of inspectors up on all the islands. Hawaii Island currently has eight inspectors for 1,830 establishments; there will be 25 or 26 inspectors on Oahu to handle 6,000 establishments.
Oshiro said the change will bring more frequent inspections to all facilities. Restaurants considered high-risk, that use raw ingredients, will be inspected three times a year. Those that take semi-prepared food directly from the freezer or refrigerator to the cooking units, such as fast-food establishments, will be inspected twice a year, and simple eateries such as ice cream shops will be inspected annually.
“This will be a much more efficient use of food inspectors’ time,” Oshiro said.
Costs will go up substantially, but will still be much less than West Coast permit fees, he said. The system will move from biennial to annual permits, with the cost rising from an average of $46 a year to $200 a year. That’s still much less than the $1,000 a year West Coast eateries pay, he said.
The department also is adopting the 2009 U.S. Food and Drug Administration Model Food Code. This will make inspection criteria more standard for all the restaurants, an issue that some restaurateurs have voiced concerns about over the years.
“They need to provide a clear system on what makes you green, what makes you yellow, what makes you red,” Botti said.
In addition, the department is working on an electronic inspection system that will put restaurant inspections online for public viewing.
The importance of restaurant inspections can’t be underestimated, said Douglas Powell, professor of food safety in the Kansas State University Department of Diagnostic Medicine/Pathobiology and one of the authors of barfblog.com, a blog about food safety.
“Public disclosure of inspection information helps foster a culture of food safety by encouraging dialogue about food safety concerns among both consumers, various levels of government and the food service industry,” he said.
Public hearings will be held at 1 p.m. Dec. 2 in Hilo at the Environmental Health Facility conference room, 1582 Kamehameha Ave. and at 1 p.m. Dec. 3 in Kona at the West Hawaii Civic Center - Liquor Control conference room, 2nd Floor, Bldg. B.
The proposed rules are available online at health.hawaii.gov/san/files/2013/10/Chpt-50-Public-hearings-ver-w-headers-3-4-13.pdf.