Tuesday, September 17, 2013

NH Division of Health Services falls short on public access to restaurant inspections

With the recent Hepatitis A scare in Contoocook at the Covered Bridge Restaurant and American Legion, the focus is again on restaurant food safety.  Earlier this year according to a story by the Concord Monitor, a food service worker possibly exposed hundreds of customers to the virus and the health department was recommending Hepatitis A shots.

For those involved we feel your pain. Back in 2005 my wife and I were set to be married and about a week prior to our wedding my wife became extremely ill. For the entire week prior to our wedding I couldn't figure out what was wrong with my bride. To spare you the most graphic of details, she was violently ill, had a very high fever, and no energy. She and I both thought it was the flu. The afternoon before our wedding I noticed her jaundice eyes and I knew this was serious. We rushed her to the hospital where she was diagnosed with Hepatitis A. Luckily, she mustered up enough energy to get through the wedding the next day but our honeymoon was delayed because of her illness. In fact, it took a good three months before she was fully recovered.

Since we were married out of state, the hospital in the town where she sought treatment reported the illness to the NH Health Department. Almost immediately upon our return home, a representative from the infectious disease department was on the phone with my wife asking for a list of restaurants where we had eaten at over the last four weeks. Given that we dine out a lot this was no easy task but we provided them with as much information as possible. It soon became apparent that they were focusing in on a couple of restaurants in the greater Concord area. Naturally, my wife asked what restaurants were involved and she was told that they couldn't say anything because they didn’t want the information public since it could potentially hurt their business.

It’s interesting to note that the year 2005 saw a record number of cases since there was an outbreak of Hepatitis A in New Hampshire. Sadly, we do know what it is like when this happens and trust us on this one, we hope you never do too.

{Editors Note on 11/16/17, the state has released an online portal providing restaurant inspection results for most of the towns in NH}

Which brings us back to the issue of food safety and also restaurant inspection reports. You may remember last year I wrote about our efforts to make more of this information easily available online. Unfortunately, we have not made a lot of progress on this issue. The New Hampshire Health Services had developed a reporting system that made most of this information available to the public but it looks like we have taken a major step backward. Suddenly it all ended last year, here is the notice from their website.

Note: 09/20/2012 - The Food Protection Section is currently having technical difficulties with the production of the Food Establishment Inspection Report. Until this issue is resolved, the report will not be available. We are working to have the report available again soon.

No updates for a year and no sign as to when this would be fixed. It is time, please repair these reports as soon possible.

If you look at the trends in this area they are for more data and not less. For example, in New York City they have an interactive map to show you everything you would want to know about an inspection. Yelp is even getting in on the act adding inspections to the reviews of restaurants online.

As the leader of restaurant inspections in the state of New Hampshire we urge the Health Services Department to do more to improve the restaurant inspection process. Update the reports as promised, encourage donor towns to enhance public access and provide whatever resources they need. If nothing else, please help the public make informed decisions about where to eat. I know that we would’ve had we known about the potential issues so many years ago.