FOI At Work: In a State Famous for its Restaurants, Why the Secrecy Around Inspections?

RESTAURANT

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There is so, so much to love about this story. First, how often do reporters get stymied when seeking information, shrug and walk away? Not this reporter! And restaurant inspections are so elemental, so easy to get in most states, that it boggles the mind that they are so hard to get in Louisiana, a state renowned for its restaurants, and with a wee bit of a history where transparency is concerned. A GREAT story…

For Tony Bonomolo, the combination of great food and an inviting aura is a must. Two to three times a week, he hits up Carpe Diem not just for food or coffee, but for the friendly atmosphere.

“It’s not just the food that draws you in, it’s also what you get out of being there,” Bonomolo, 24, said.

Food safety isn’t high on his concern list. After all, he says, “You don’t ever really get to see the kitchen.”

Bonomolo doesn’t know how right he is. A investigation by The Daily Advertiser shows Louisiana has one of the poorest records in the country when it comes to making restaurant inspections available to consumers.

Did you know that:

» Louisiana is one of only nine states that does not make at least some inspections, which are public record, available online. The State Department of Health and Hospitals, which oversees the inspections, first promised a website in 2005 but has so far failed to deliver. Only after weeks of questioning from the Advertiser — and four days before publication of this article — did the DHH announce plans for a site to go live Monday.

» Thirty-nine states allow for some kind of rating with each inspection to make it easier for consumers to know where a restaurant stands relative to others. Louisiana and 10 others do not. Many other states also insist inspections be posted at the restaurant itself; Louisiana does not.

» Restaurants have little motivation to rush to fix violations. A restaurant cited for violations has at least two months after the initial inspection before a fine can be levied. And not a single restaurant in Lafayette has been shut down by DHH using this process in the past five years.

» Several key stakeholders, including the powerful Louisiana Restaurant Association, openly oppose or sharply question the need for any change that allows the public more access to inspection reports.

» Taken together, these findings paint a troubling picture for consumers, particularly in Lafayette, where great restaurants are one of the city’s top calling cards and eating out is practically a way of life. The issue has taken on added urgency because of a rash of food-borne illnesses making headlines across the country, including an ongoing salmonella outbreak in 26 states that has killed one person and left more than 75 people ill. Closer to home, three patients died and 40 became ill from food poisoning from chicken salad served at Pineville’s Central State Hospital last year. States such as New York, New Jersey and Hawaii have taken recent steps to tighten health regulations in response to growing concerns, but our state has stood pat.

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