LINCOLN — Technology puts restaurant ratings and reviews on the nearest touchscreen, but finding food safety information requires more than a few swipes and taps.
If you dine in Iowa and know where to search online, you can read detailed inspection reports. Getting similar public information in much of Nebraska, however, still requires a request to view hard-copy records.
Now, the City of Lincoln is making it more convenient for consumers to learn what inspectors discover with their swabs, thermometers and flashlights behind the kitchen doors of public eateries.
Last week the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department launched a new database on its website that lists high-risk violations dating back three years at restaurants, convenience stores and even public schools.
“This is an excellent use of technology to help protect the health of our residents and visitors,” Mayor Chris Beutler said.
Lincoln's new feature doesn't offer the same detailed reports posted online by the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals. But it provides more extensive and up-to-date information than the Douglas County Health Department offers on its site.
As for restaurants outside of Douglas and Lancaster Counties, no inspection records are yet available on the Web.
In Douglas County, restaurants are listed by name and address and are given word ratings ranging from “superior” to “fair.”
Health department officials are exploring ways to upgrade the database, said Phil Rooney, spokesman for the department. As of yet there isn't a timeline for when a new site would be available.
Rooney said there are about 3,000 food establishments in Douglas County.
Lincoln's new searchable database allows users to look up any of the city's roughly 1,200 establishments by name. A screen shows the dates of all random inspections conducted at the establishment over the past three years.
Only serious food safety violations are listed in detail. By clicking on the report, users can see violations that run the gamut from improper serving temperatures and dirty utensils to slime mold in the sink and cockroaches in the kitchen.
The reports also list follow-up inspections.
The database was developed in consultation with a food advisory council made up of representatives from restaurants, convenience stores, grocery stores and the public health sector. Jim Partington, director of the Nebraska Restaurant Association, serves on the council.
Partington said the majority of restaurants in Nebraska incur few, if any, serious safety violations. Restaurant owners just wanted to make sure the inspection information was presented accurately and fairly and in a way that genuinely helps consumers.
The Lincoln website generally meets those concerns.
“We didn't tell them what to do,” he said, referring to the health department. “They're going to do what they're going to do, but it allows us to present our concerns and feedback.”
The Lincoln health department also received a $350,000 grant from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to help reduce food-borne illnesses from restaurants. The five-year grant will pay most of the salary for a new hire whose job will be to help food handlers at poorer-performing establishments improve their safety records.
Lincoln is one of 38 cities to receive one of the grants and the only one in Nebraska, said Joyce Jensen, environmental health supervisor for the department.
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