ANOTHER VIEWPOINT: Falling down on the job when it comes to food safety

This editorial was originally published June 20 in the South Bend Tribune. 

The past year has seen plenty of discussion about the role that the St. Joseph County Health Department plays in ensuring public health during a pandemic.

But there’s been little talk about restaurant inspections, another of its responsibilities — and one where the department has fallen well short. The Board of Public Health, which oversees the department, has also neglected to take forceful steps.

A recent Tribune report by Christian Sheckler detailed a shift in how the department handles restaurant violations, moving toward private meetings and away from public hearings. In recent years, the number of restaurants being closed for unsanitary conditions or ordered to answer publicly for the problems has plummeted.

From 2014 through 2016, the department closed and held hearings for an average of 16 restaurants per year. The number then started dropping, down to zero last year.

The department began allowing restaurants with repeat violations to go on probation, without a hearing or a temporary closure.

The department’s response to repeated violations at Fiesta Cancun provides a vivid illustration of how much the department has backed off its previous practices.

In late 2019, after an inspector found 13 violations, the South Bend restaurant was warned to fix the problems. Two months later, in February 2020, an inspector again found 13 violations, five of them deemed “critical” violations.

Rather than closing the restaurant — as it would have in previous years — the department put Fiesta Cancun on probation, subjecting it to more frequent inspections. But a few months later, inspections found 13 more violations, including five critical ones and two repeats. Still, no closure, no hearings.

Instead, health officials scheduled a private meeting with Fiesta Cancun management to “discuss best practices.”

Dr. Bob Einterz, the county health officer, says the department tries to “use discretion between ensuring the health of the public and not damaging the reputation of a business owner.”

But how does keeping serious problems secret ensure the public health? We’re not talking about minor issues; these are critical violations.

Shouldn’t people be armed with such information before picking up a menu?

Earlier this month, the department finally acted, temporarily closing Fiesta Cancun after two reports of possible food poisoning and another series of violations.

The restaurant had reopened last weekend, after passing its follow-up inspection “with flying colors,” according to Einterz. The restaurant was assessed a $200 fine and placed on probation for six months.

But it’s not just Fiesta Cancun. The Tribune found other cases of restaurants with multiple violations over several months where the health department didn’t hold a public hearing or didn’t force a temporary closure.

A health department official told The Tribune that “not all offenses merit a hearing” and that many violations may not be “issues that are a threat to public health.”

But that doesn’t explain the department’s failure to make restaurants answer publicly for serious issues. They’ve chosen to address critical violations with private conversations — instances where the public has a right to know.

So where’s the Board of Public Health, which oversees the department, on this issue? Heidi Beidinger Burnett, the board president, didn’t return messages seeking comment for Sheckler’s story. At a meeting on Wednesday, only one member brought up the topic, and the board immediately moved on after Einterz and another administrator explained their approach.

Customers have a right to know if a restaurant’s practices are threatening food safety. The health department’s first obligation is to protect the public, not a business’ reputation.

And the Board of Public Health has a duty to pay attention, step in and push the administrators to rethink their practices. Otherwise, the public is left in the dark and can only wonder how many customer complaints, and how many violations, are enough to ensure food safety in the county.

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