“During the last decade, the number of city and state health departments that post restaurant inspection results online has increased significantly, said Marler from his office in Seattle. “Moreover, in places like Los Angeles County, all restaurants regularly receive either a letter-grade or inspection-score, and these must be prominently posted near the entrance to the restaurant. The primary goal of these efforts is to motivate restaurants to improve sanitation and food-handling practices so that fewer people get sick. When faced with a choice between dining at a restaurant that received a C-grade versus an A-grade, it is pretty much a no-brainer that people are going to be more inclined to spend money at a restaurant with a higher grade!
“But if making this kind of information easily available is such a no-brainer, why then does the FSIS make it so difficult for the public to find out the results of thousands of inspections it performs everyday in meat plants across the country? In 2005, FSIS employed over 7,600 inspection program personnel in about 6,000 federally inspected establishments nationwide with an annual cost of $815.1 million. That is a lot of money to spend on inspections given that the public does not currently have any way by which to gain easy and timely access.
“Right now, for all meat products made in a USDA-inspected plant, the plant’s establishment number must appear on the label with the mark of inspection. But if a consumer trying to decide what brand of frozen hamburgers to buy wants to compare one plant’s inspection records with another, the only way copies of the inspection reports (called Noncompliance Records, or NR’s) can be obtained is by making a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). These FOIA requests can, however, take years to be processed. And so usually it is only after there has been a big outbreak and recall—like the recent ones involving Topps or Nebraska Beef—that the public learns about how many times a plant has failed an inspection, or been found to be in violation of safety regulations.
“Consumers should know the record of the company responsible for any meat they purchase,” sums up Marler. “We’ve paid for the inspections—we’re owed that much, at least.”