Finally, the state of Pennsylvania has produced something useful for residents.
The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture has upgraded its online database of restaurant inspection records so consumers can check out their favorite dining spot before sitting down to order a meal.
I spent a good hour today looking over inspection reports for restaurants around my neck of the woods. (It was the first time I had a reason to visit the Agriculture Department's Web site).
I was surprised to see some eateries I frequent failed to pass muster when state health inspectors showed up.
Six violations at a fast-food joint near my house? 11 violations at the family restaurant I took the kids to last week? I think I'm going to be sick.
The Agriculture Department launched its restaurant database 18 months ago, but all the information available until today was whether the 23,000 restaurants under the state's jurisdiction had passed inspection. It was simply "In Compliance" or "Out of Compliance" on the report.
But now the site provides a lot more information, including copies of the actual health inspection reports. Lack of hand-washing? Dirty utensils? Evidence of rodent or insect infestation? It's all there.
You can search for information on your favorite restaurant (including fast-food joints) by the name of the establishment, your county or the zip code.
The site even provides information on school cafeterias and other businesses that serve food, including health clubs.
The newly-upgrade Web site is part of the Agriculture Department's attempt to improve access to its inspection reports.
All this came about thanks to The Morning Call in Allentown, which did a terrific investigative series in 2005 that showed that Pennsylvania was lax in conducting health inspections of restaurants. The Morning Call used the state' Right-to-Know Law to obtain 200,000 food inspection reports from Harrisburg. Brave souls at the newspaper then poured through more than 75,000 reports. The bottom line? Pennsylvania doesn't have enough inspectors and has a terrible time of keeping track of its inspections.
The department employs 65 restaurant inspectors and seven regional supervisors who have the authority to conduct inspections, according to the Associated Press. Than doesn't sound like enough people to cover the thousands of eateries in the state. Come on, governor. Cough up some dough to inspect restaurants instead of subsidizing those empty SEPTA buses.
An Agriculture Department spokesperson warns that not all restaurants are included in the online database because six of Pennsylvania's 67 counties and 196 municipalities do their own licensing of restaurants. The state is working to include information from the county and local inspectors on the Web site by the end of the year, the spokesman said.
Thanks to the Web site, I'm going to be a little more careful where I take the family to dinner.
To access the restaurant inspection database, go to: http://www.agriculture.state.pa.us/pafoodsafety