Heads up, Philly restaurants: The inspectors are coming

This year’s city budget includes $1 million to clean up this town.

Danya Henninger

By next year, Philly restaurants could be a lot cleaner. Theoretically, anyway.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s proposed city budget for fiscal year 2018, which starts on July 1, would add $1 million to the Health Department budget to help meet its goal of inspecting restaurants every 12 months.

“This will increase the number of inspections we can complete, enabling us to inspect every food service establishment at least once per year,” said Health Commissioner Thomas Farley.

That once-a-year schedule is what’s adhered to in New York City — where Farley previously was commissioner and ran a public health nonprofit — and is also the target schedule for cities like Chicago, DC and San Francisco, although some of them also struggle to meet it. Right now, Philadelphia restaurants are inspected on an average of once every of 15.3 months, according to the Health Department.

How would the new money help slim the Philly interval? By adding staff.

The new funds would allow the department to hire 20 new food safety inspectors and supervisors — “sanitarians” is the official job title. Considering the Philadelphia Office of Food Protection currently employees just 29 “sanitarian specialists” and five supervisors, who make between $41,000 and $59,000 in salary, that’s a pretty huge staff boost — to the tune of nearly 60 percent.

Even with such a big jump in personnel, the frequency in inspections would likely only increase around 20 percent because a lot of sanitarians’ time is dedicated to handling complaints.

“Inspections are done on a rolling calendar schedule based upon fiscal year, but that is upset by complaints,” Digital Public Health Director James Garrow told Billy Penn, “which obviously upsets any type of hyper-planned out calendar, and rightfully so as we take complaints very seriously.”

While health inspections used to be a topic few people cared about outside the restaurant industry — where they’re a topic of frequent discussion and griping (a common complaint is that various inspectors interpret and enforce the health code differently from one another) — they’ve been more in the public eye in the past few years. In late 2014, both the Philadelphia City Paper and the Philadelphia Inquirer launched searchable online databases of inspection reports, and the Inquirer’s Clean Plates series has continued to provide a monthly chronicle of Philly’s worst offenders.

You can also search inspection reports on the Office of Food Protection’s website directly. The city’s database is maintained by a North Carolina company called the Digital Health Department, per Garrows, into which Philly’s sanitarians enter info as soon as they complete an inspection, he said.

If Philly issued letter grades for health inspection reports and required restaurants to post them visibly in the front window, like NYC does, people wouldn’t have to search a database to know if their favorite hoagie shop was gross or not.

Last month, Commissioner Farley told the Inquirer that his department “simply [does] not have the manpower” to do letter grades, a program he personally implemented in NYC. Now that his Philly inspection staff is increasing by more than half, perhaps he’ll find a way to do it here.

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