Of the nation's 10 largest cities, Philadelphia is the only one that does not allow the public to see restaurant inspection reports for 30 days, time in which diners could unknowingly patronize restaurants with serious hygiene problems.
With the exception of Phoenix, which takes 72 hours to process its reports, the remaining major cities - including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles - publish restaurant inspections immediately, according to a survey by Philly.com.
Pittsburgh posts its reports immediately. So do the counties of Bucks, Montgomery, and Chester, the last of which posts its findings on the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture database. That database includes most of the state, including many Delaware County municipalities, and it posts them without delay.
In New Jersey, Camden County posts results online within three to five business days; Burlington County does so at least as fast. Gloucester County's website is updated monthly, with limited details.
The Philadelphia policy puzzles experts who wonder why the city would keep restaurant inspections private for so long.
"Give the restaurant a month to fix [the problems]?" asked Jim Chan, recently retired manager of Toronto's DineSafe program.
"Is that fair to the public? Is that good health policy? No."
"This seems like a strange protocol," said Michael P. Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. "It certainly doesn't help the customer."
Andres Marin, professor of culinary arts at Community College of Philadelphia, said a weeklong delay might be acceptable to fix minor problems.
"But the question should be: What is the reason that we're making these public?" Marin said. "We want to let the public know about the restaurant's cleanliness and the way they're handling the food. Withholding a report for 30 days makes no sense."
Philadelphia Public Health Department spokesman Jeff Moran said reports are kept under wraps so owners of food establishments can challenge a sanitarian's findings.
How did the policy begin?
"My understanding is that this has been a long-standing policy, that it arose from [the] fact that [the] proprietor has [a] 30-day period to appeal an inspection," city Health Commissioner James Buehler wrote via email Monday.
Yet appeals are rare - there have been only four since 2009, according to the city Office of Licenses and Inspections. Of those, just two involved restaurants.
Moran said the 30-day withholding policy was established by the city code, specifically two clauses that provide for appeals.
Yet a former senior lawyer from the Philadelphia solicitor's office, asked by Philly.com to review those clauses, came to a different conclusion.
"I don't see anything in those sections that requires a report to be withheld at all," Mark Zecca said.
He said he could understand that the city might feel pressured not to report something negative because "whenever you do something that affects the reputation of a business, the business could scream."
But that is no reason not to alert the public to a potential threat, he said.
"The analogy would be to an arrest," Zecca said. "The defendant may be acquitted, but the arrest is public. I don't see any reason for keeping them secret."
A recent case demonstrates the importance of quickly making inspections public.
On Feb. 10, a city health employee inspected Joy Tsin Lau, a dim sum eatery with a banquet hall on Race Street, and found improperly stored food, no soap in the employees' restroom, and mouse droppings.
Her findings were kept secret. Seventeen days later, on Feb. 27, about 100 lawyers and law students were stricken with food poisoning after attending a banquet at the restaurant. Many were treated in city emergency rooms for what turned out to be norovirus, the leading cause of disease outbreaks from contaminated food in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. City inspectors do not test specifically for norovirus and other pathogens.
"No one would have gone there knowing about mouse droppings and the other sanitation violations," said lawyer Richard Kim, who represents one of the sickened lawyers in a lawsuit against Joy Tsin Lau. "Nobody would have done that."
Catherine Adams Hutt, a consultant for the National Restaurant Association, said the city's 30-day policy was not responsible for sickening the lawyers.
"It doesn't matter when an inspection report is posted," Hutt said. "It's the responsibility of the restaurant owner to correct the violations. There's no excuse for a restaurant for food poisoning 17 days after an inspection."
On March 2, four days after the lawyers got sick, sanitarian Stephen Belo returned to Joy Tsin Lau and cited it for 12 serious violations and three lower-risk factors.
On April 16, Belo inspected the restaurant again and found 12 serious and seven lesser infractions. Both reports were kept from the public for 30 days.
In May, the city sued Joy Tsin Lau, deeming it a "serious and immediate hazard" and "a public health nuisance." Hearings in the case have been repeatedly pushed back. The next is slated for Nov. 10.
Joanna Klein, a city lawyer, said she could not speak specifically about the case. "Generally speaking, cases are continued so that the issues between the parties can be resolved," she said.
The restaurant remained open Monday.
The 30-day delay helps neither consumers nor business owners, said Dave-Roger Grosvenor, a restaurant consultant in Mount Laurel who counts major Philadelphia restaurateurs Stephen Starr and Jose Garces among his clients.
"It's definitely a benefit to the public health and welfare to have [an inspection] posted almost immediately," Grosvenor said. "The mission of the restaurant and the mission of the Health Department should be to guard the health and welfare of the public.
"Anything other than that, and we're not doing our jobs."