CINCINNATI - It was a quiet summer afternoon in the Eastgate Mall food court. Mothers dined with their pre-school children as burger, pizza and chili aromas mingled with those from China Experience.
By all appearances, it was the wrong place to look for cockroaches.
But that’s exactly what health inspectors have found repeatedly during inspections at the China Experience restaurant. Clermont County General Health District officials suspended the restaurant’s license last July because of a persistent roach problem, dating back to 2011. The most recent violations came in February, when inspectors found dead cockroaches in an ice machine.
Owner Justin Lin said his restaurant was the victim of a larger roach problem at Eastgate Mall, a problem that is now being addressed. Inspectors noted finding roaches in planters in the larger food court area in 2012.
“We had more roaches than the others because of the food that we do,” Lin said. “The reason the roaches are gone now is because the whole mall has pest control going on right now.”
Some of the mall’s restaurant tenants were aware of the issues, based on interviews conducted by WCPO Digital. Others were not.
China Experience, known in 2012 as Chinese Gourmet Experience, is not the only restaurant across the Tri-State that has had problems.
Health inspectors routinely find rodents, dirty silverware and food not being kept at proper temperatures at various eateries in the Greater Cincinnati region, according an exhaustive review of the area’s electronic health inspection records by WCPO Digital.
That review of 33,000 violations at 5,000 food service facilities exposed another troubling issue: There is little uniformity in how health departments maintain and report inspections and make them available to the dining public.
Four local health departments now post records online. But they all have different standards for how they report the information and what language they use in the records. That makes it hard to tell how one restaurant in Milford, Ohio compares to another in Cold Spring, Ky.
At least one local jurisdiction – the Butler County Health Department – still keeps its records on paper. Warren County scans its paper records and makes them available for review in pdf format.
The Ohio Department of Health is working to address the problem with a statewide information technology system that all local health departments will be able to use for licensing and inspections, said Jamie Higley, the department’s food program administrator.
“Our goal is to have uniformity across the state in how the inspections are conducted and in how the reports are written,” Higley said. “The public is going to be viewing these records and for the public to be able to read those records and be able to understand them is important.”
The department is working on a “public portal” to do just that.
But even so, not all health districts will be using the system right away, he said.
WCPO Digital is taking a step in that direction by posting all of the electronic records we could obtain for a full year into a single searchable database. The list includes 33,344 violations at 5,022 unique addresses for restaurants, school kitchens and other food-service facilities overseen by four health departments: Cincinnati, Hamilton County, Clermont County and Northern Kentucky, which includes Boone, Campbell, Grant and Kenton counties.
Find your favorite restaurant and its 2012 inspection reports below or at http://www.wcpo.com/inspections
Combined, these departments have 39 inspectors who made more than 20,000 inspections and follow-up visits to nearly 8,700 licensed facilities in 2012. Those licensed facilities include about 5,000 restaurants along with kitchens attached to schools, pools, country clubs and hospitals. The data does not include the cities of Hamilton, Middletown, Norwood, Springdale and Sharonville, each of which conducts its own inspections. Butler and Warren counties do not keep electronic records.
The Butler County Health Department began conducting inspections using a laptop in November, said Brian Williamson, the department’s chief of environmental services. Once the department has a year’s worth of electronic records, it will assess whether to make those records available online, he said.
“We’re in a transition period,” Williamson said. “We’re watching how information is reported by different sources, and there’s a lot of interest in how the information is useful. Things are really making a lot of advancement.”
Next page: A closer look
Food Safety Important To Nation's Health
The four health departments analyzed by WCPO Digital all enforce a similar set of rules aimed at promoting food safety with a set of minimum standards for cleanliness, food handling and storage practices, cooking and refrigeration temperatures.
Food safety is important to the nation’s health. About 48 million people, or one in six Americans, suffer from foodborne illness each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. About 128,000 people are hospitalized from food illnesses, and 3,000 die.
Inspectors from all four jurisdictions try to educate as they enforce food safety standards. They all use administrative procedures to single out problem restaurants for increased inspections and training. They all make inspection reports available in searchable online databases.
Beyond these common elements, the departments vary widely.
The city of Cincinnati is the only department among the four that does not identify in public records whether a violation is considered critical.
Hamilton County said critical violations are those identified by the Centers for Disease Control as the top five risk factors for foodborne illness. They include improper hot/cold holding temperatures, improper cooking temperatures, contaminated utensils and equipment, poor employee health and hygiene and food from unsafe sources.
Cincinnati said it is following standards issued by the Ohio Department of Health.
“We’re not supposed to use the word critical because it gives the impression that other violations are not important,” said Dale Grigsby, supervising sanitarian for the Cincinnati Health Department. “You really have to look at the individual violations. You have to look at the reports to determine how serious the violations are.”
Northern Kentucky is the only department among the four that employs a scoring system that makes it easy to gauge how one restaurant compares to another. Restaurants in Northern Kentucky are required to get a score of 85 or higher with no critical violations.
If an inspector does find a critical violation, the restaurant has 10 days to fix it, said Ted Talley, the department’s environmental health manager. If a restaurant gets a score lower than 70, the inspector issues an “intent to suspend” and has a conference with a state official present. If a restaurant scores below 60, it’s automatically shut down, which is rare.
“I’m not a big fan of grading,” said Clermont County Environmental Health Director Robert Perry. Because every inspector is different, Perry thinks scoring systems leave too much room for subjectivity. “There’s just too much disparity there,” he said.
That disparity is evident in the WCPO Digital data.
Clermont County Health District had five inspectors who wrote 5,817 violations in 2012, or 1,163 per inspector. Ten inspectors at Hamilton County Public Health wrote 6,819 violations, or 682 per inspector. In Northern Kentucky, the average number of violations per inspector was 922. In the city of Cincinnati, it was 811.
Education vs. Enforcement?
Hamilton County takes an “education over enforcement” approach to food safety, said Jeremy Hessel, director of environment health. That includes allowing restaurants to sometimes correct violations as an alternative to being cited. The county has a pre-administrative hearing process to target repeat violators for training and corrective action. Three years ago, it instituted a “Clean Kitchen” award to reward those facilities that repeatedly pass inspection with flying colors.
“If we think they are a threat to the public health, we’ll shut them down that day,” Hessel said. “Absent that, we just want them to clean up.”
Perry said restaurateurs have told Clermont County that its inspections are “a little harder” to pass. But he doesn’t think its enforcement approach is more aggressive than other departments.
"Do we have a stick? Yes, we have a stick. But we use it sparingly,” Perry said. “We offer food safety classes and encourage folks to attend them. We do a lot of education out in the field. Our guys are in constant dialogue with the operator.”
A Tale of Two Restaurants
Clermont County records show how extensive those conversations can be between restaurants and regulators. Inspection records and meeting minutes from the Clermont County Board of Health show the China Experience restaurant at Eastgate Mall has been under scrutiny by health inspectors since November 2011.
That is when a citizen complaint led to the discovery of the severe cockroach infestation at the mall.
“Cockroaches were observed in the facility and in food court planters,” said the minutes from March 12, 2012. At China Experience, inspectors found “varying sizes of cockroaches indicating an established infestation.”
Julianne Nesbit, deputy health commissioner for Clermont County, said China Experience has been subject to monthly monitoring since February 2012.
“They are taking care of the issues,” she said. “We are not to the point where we feel we can let them go yet.”
The board required restaurant managers to undergo food safety certification. A ServSafe Certificate was displayed just below the menu board when WCPO Digital visited June 11.
“I don’t think anybody, including our board, wants to put anybody out of business,” Nesbit said. “We do want to protect the public health.”
Hamilton County Public Health took a similar course of action with Homer’s Original Smorgasbord, a family-owned restaurant at 9972 Reading Road in Evendale, Ohio.
WCPO Digital data shows 75 violations for Homer’s in 2012, including 24 critical violations for dirty food-contact surfaces, inadequate pest control and failure to prevent cross-contamination during food storage or handling.
Homer’s is one of 14 Hamilton County restaurants to be brought into a pre-administrative hearing process. Its inspection schedule was bumped up to once a month, six times the normal frequency.
“They had to go through some food safety training with their employees,” Hamilton County’s Hessel said.
All Homer’s employees became ServSafe certified in April and May of this year, and there is always one shift operator with a manager who has ServSafe certification on site, said Robert Lam, a Homer's manager and the son of the restaurant's owners.
ServSafe is a food safety program, operated by the National Restaurant Association. It requires several days of instruction on proper storage and serving temperatures for food, hand washing and restaurant cleaning techniques. More than 5 million people have been certified under the 40-year-old program.
“Having these inspections is really something I think we need to keep us on our feet,” Lam said. “A lot of our customers are senior citizens. So we need to make sure everything is safe and clean.”
He acknowledged the restaurant has had problems during inspections in the past and said he feels inspectors have treated the restaurant fairly. But Lam said his parents have sometimes felt they have gotten inconsistent direction from different inspectors.
“Health inspectors have a lot of power,” Lam said. “But I feel that they’re pretty fair. We want to stay in business. They want to help us stay in business. They’re going to help us to do the best that we can, keep everything up to code and keep the public safe.”
There is evidence that the increased scrutiny is working. The buffet-style eatery had more violations noted during restaurant inspections in 2012 than any other restaurant examined by WCPO Digital. It averaged 7.25 violations per month. Since March, Homer’s average dropped to 2.8 violations per month and three of its eight inspections turned up no violations at all.
A Tale Of Two Chains
LaRosa’s Inc. prepares for food inspectors by hiring a private company to conduct quarterly audits that take several hours and are more rigorous than public inspections.
“Our audit is very comprehensive,” said Brian Cundiff, vice president of operations for the 65-store pizza chain. “It’s a surprise audit that can happen any day of the week outside of dinner.”
The private inspectors from EcoSure, a division of St. Paul, Minn. –based EcoLab Inc., look not only for health code violations but also such things as if tables have gum stuck on the underside, whether marketing materials are properly displayed and whether employees are wearing non-slip shoes.
LaRosa’s used to hire retired inspectors to do mock inspections but switched to contractors who can check for all quality control elements on which managers and franchises are rated.
In addition to surprise audits, LaRosa’s requires all shift managers to be ServSafe Certified, Cundiff said most LaRosa’s stores have four or five certified employees so there is always someone on site who is ServSafe certified.
“God forbid you have a foodborne illness. It can be detrimental to the entire chain,” said Mike LaRosa, CEO of the family-owned company.
Cincinnati-based Frisch’s Restaurants Inc. has systems in place to ensure safe practices, too, said CEO Craig Maier. The company requires every restaurant in the chain to send its inspection results to the corporate office, for example, where executives there look for problems or trends that could lead to changes in policy.
But that practice failed at the Frisch’s Big Boy at 1052 Old U.S. 52 in New Richmond, Ohio. That store had 42 violations cited during inspections in 2012, one of the highest totals among the restaurants that WCPO Digital examined.
“I personally own the restaurant, and I ran it myself for years in the past,” Maier said of the New Richmond location. “Clearly they were not doing what they were supposed to do. And there are a whole lot of people who are in trouble these days.”
Maier said it’s “not that hard” to follow the rules and comply with health department regulations.
“If you don’t make the health department happy, you don’t get to stay in business. It’s step one,” he said. “It’s not hard when everyone just does the things they’re supposed to do.”
'You're Not Going to be Totally Clean'
Smaller restaurant operators tend to have fewer systems in place for compliance with food safety rules. They can also be under-staffed, with employees – or owners – acting as chief cook, bottle washer and server simultaneously.
But food safety regulations are designed to protect people whose immune systems are suppressed or who are taking medications that make them more susceptible to food-borne illness, said Talley of the Northern Kentucky Health District.
“We just all have to be aware of it,” Talley said. “Busy times are not an excuse for not changing gloves when you should or not washing your hands.”
Still, it can be nearly impossible to keep a restaurant’s kitchen perfectly clean when it’s busy, said Ernest Mickles, owner of The Gathering Place at 515 Liberty St. in the Clermont County community of Newtonsville. The Gathering Place had the second-highest number of violations in our analysis with 69 in 2012.
Mickles told WCPO Digital he has no complaints about the inspector who checks his restaurant and said his restaurant has always been treated fairly.
Still, he said, “they come in during the normal business hours when you’re busy so you’re not going to be spotless. You’re not going to be totally clean.”
Larger restaurant chains tend to have systems in place to promote proper food handling and employee hygiene.
At By Golly’s in Milford, General Manager Jen Philhower said the restaurant “never had any issues with cleanliness” and works hard to maintain a clean kitchen. She provided a tour of that kitchen to WCPO Digital, during which we observed a cook scraping freshly cut vegetables off a large knife on the side of a garbage can.
By Golly’s ranked as the sixth highest in violations in the WCPO Digital Analysis with 55 violations in 2012. That had dropped to four violations in its only inspection this year. Philhower sent us a letter from her Clermont County inspector, Timothy Wright.
“We did observe two critical violations however they were corrected during the inspection and these issues were discussed so as to prevent future re-occurrences,” Wright wrote. “Based on my last inspection results, it was determined that a re-inspection was not necessary and it was in my opinion that this facility did not pose a risk to public health.”
Back at the Eastgate Mall, China Experience owner Lin said in mid-July that his five-month streak of roach-free inspections could last indefinitely.
“As long as every tenant in the mall is doing pest control every month, we should be fine,” he said.
But alas, on July 28 came another visit by Clermont inspectors.
"There are three dead cockroaches (2 adult, 1 nymph) and food debris on the storage trays below the bulk soy sauce containers," the report read.
HOW WE DID THE ANALYSIS
WCPO Digital received electronic database files from the Clermont County General Health District, Cincinnati Health Department, Hamilton County Public Health and Northern Kentucky Health Department. We modified those files so restaurant names, addresses, violation descriptions and other data appeared in a way that allowed us to analyze and map the data.
We also ran the data through an address verification service and eliminated duplicate files that appeared in Kentucky records because of the way its records are stored and presented online. We eliminated from Cincinnati's files those records in which inspectors noted violations that were corrected or abated on a second visit.
The records in our database reflect all violations in the 2012 calendar year.
The top 10 violators in the slideshow presentation does not include Great American Ball Park, with 77 violations, because the data comes from "several kitchens, dozens of concession stands, restaurants and clubs, and portable food and beverage carts (at GABP). It is the equivalent of dozens of individual restaurants," said Glen White, a spokesman for Delaware North Companies, food vendor for the Cincinnati Reds. Similar violation counts can be found at Findlay Market, Paul Brown Stadium and the food courts at Kenwood Towne Centre and Florence Mall.