Restaurant-goers in Philadelphia will no longer have to dine in the dark.
The city Health Department, which has had a long-standing policy of keeping restaurant inspection reports secret for 30 days, announced Monday that it will move to publicly post the reports "as quickly as possible."
The change follows an Inquirer/Philly.com report that found Philadelphia was the only major city in the United States to withhold its inspection results from the public for any significant length of time.
The 30-day delay meant that diners could unknowingly patronize restaurants cited for serious hygiene problems.
In late February, nearly 100 lawyers and law students became violently ill after attending a banquet at Joy Tsin Lau in Chinatown. Several were treated in local emergency rooms. Seventeen days before the banquet, the restaurant had been cited by the health department for five serious risk factors for food-borne illness, and was deemed to have "unacceptable public health or food-safety conditions."
The city forced the restaurant to close briefly, but it is back in business, and got through a recent inspection with only one serious violation.
The 30-day withholding period has existed for at least three decades, officials said. Health department sanitarians inspect about 12,000 food establishments each year, including 5,000 eat-in restaurants.
City code allows restaurant owners to appeal a failing inspection report. The health department interpreted the 30 day appeal period to mean that owners could use the time to make fixes before the negative information became public. Appeals, however, are rare. According to the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections, only four food establishments challenged inspectors' findings since 2009.
At Philly.com's request, a former senior lawyer from the Philadelphia solicitor's office reviewed the code and found there was no legal justification to withhold the data.
The health department now agrees.
"We have determined that the non-disclosure period is not required by the code, nor is it consistent with the Nutter Administration's open-data policy," said health department spokesman Jeff Moran in a statement.
Moran said that as soon as the necessary software is updated, likely in the next month, reports will be published within 24 to 72 hours of inspections.
"That's great news," said Mark Zecca, the former city attorney who reviewed the city code. "It's kind of a case study of when government says there are laws that prohibit X, Y and Z. Suddenly, when they want to change the policy, those laws go 'poof!'"
Palak Raval-Nelson, who heads the Philadelphia Office of Food Protection at the Department of Public Health, downplayed the significance of quickly releasing the inspection reports.
"I don't know if it will have any impact on the public's perception of food safety," Raval-Nelson said. "How often do you check the inspection reports before going out to eat?"
Several food safety experts applauded the city's change in policy, but said there was more to be done to truly protect the public.
"I think it's important for the health department to enlighten the public about dangerous circumstances, especially dealing with risk factors," said Dave-Roger Grosvenor, a food safety consultant to many of the city's best-known restaurants. "But by the same token they must be willing to make sure (corrections) are addressed in a very short time frame."
Jim Chan, the former manager of Toronto's Food Safety Program, said Philadelphia should follow the examples set by cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Toronto and institute a restaurant grading system in which health inspectors' findings are prominently displayed where anyone entering the establishment can see them.
"The next step is to introduce an on-site rating - an A, B, C or green, yellow, red card system - to increase transparency."
If a Philadelphia diner wants to check out a restaurant's record, entire reports can be read on the city's website, though it's unclear how many people go to that trouble. Current reports and archived data dating back to 2009 are also available in an easy-to-use format through the Inquirer's Clean Plates project at Philly.com/cleanplates.
At least some consumers appear hungry for information about the safety of their food. Yelp, the crowd-sourced restaurant review site, recently began to slap consumer warnings on review pages for restaurants in San Francisco with poor health grades. In addition, several city health departments have begun to scour Yelp to track outbreaks of food-borne illness.
Zecca, the former city attorney, said that promptly releasing reports should be just the start of changes to protect the public.
"Right now, Philadelphia has an ineffective restaurant inspection enforcement system because it does not shut restaurants immediately when there is a condition that could impair the public health," Zecca said.