By KEVIN KNAPEK/Montana State News

Food establishments in recent years have been giving consumers more knowledge about the food they eat, everything from quality and nutritional values to caloric intake. In the next few weeks, a new local website will help consumers know how clean and safe each food establishment is.

The Gallatin County-City Health Department is constructing a website that will allow restaurant patrons to see how clean and safe the establishments are where they eat. Currently, any person curious to know what citations an establishment has received for health code violations has to contact the county offices.

Restaurant health and violation reports are public record and open for viewing, but if you try to contact the county Environmental Health Department directly, they will not address any specifics because it could be viewed as the department endorsing one establishment over another.

The idea behind the website is to give the general public access to this information about their food establishments around the clock, even on the weekends. Real time web access should allow for up-to-the-minute information. As health inspectors write their reports, the consumer will have immediate access to them.

With smart phones and laptops, consumers sitting down to eat can actually run a search of the restaurant to decide if they want to stay. Dustin Schreiner, Environmental Health Inspector, said that the department is still working on the website’s looks and content, but the idea of Paragon – the software developer – is to report the health and safety of the food establishment, which includes violations.

“When an establishment applies for a food license, they agree to abide by the state and local food code,” Schreiner said. “If we observe any violations of these rules during an inspection, they are given a violation.”

The rules are designed to ensure clean establishments and promote safe food handling to prevent dangerous levels of bacteria.

Most inspections done by the Health Department are unannounced. Health officers will schedule inspection times, but that is only when there are time constraints.

Schreiner cited the Missoula website, since Gallatin County will most likely replicate their model. Searching the Missoula site seemed simple; consumers just enter the name of the food establishment or its physical address. Results for the food establishment being searched should include health, safety and any violations given.

According to Shannon Therriault, environmental health supervisor in the Missoula City-County Health Department, Paragon does have its limitations. Violations are automatically included; the inspectors do not get to choose which ones show up. What does not show up is the “comments section.”

“The reason we don’t have this section on-line is simple: the company doesn’t yet offer it as possibility,” Therriault said. “We may in the future pay Paragon to add this to the on-line information. This is the section that inspectors use to write good comments and not when things are fixed, but not all comments are good.”

Even though the section is not available, the public can still get the information upon request.

With this digital consumer advantage, will countywide eateries be worried that it might affect their business? The Gallatin health department does not foresee companies being upset, nor has the Missoula health department experienced any companies being upset about the information being readily accessible.

“The records have always been public; we are just making the information more accessible,” Schreiner said.

Therriault agreed, “What we found was that people in the food industry were interested in seeing how their competitors were doing, rather than worried about what the public would think of their inspection reports.”

Missoula health department did have a local restaurant concerned that the report would list the quality of the food, but after re-assurance from the Missoula health department, the owners of the restaurant were fine with the concept.

Stacey McMillan, a mother of two and occasional restaurant patron, thinks that as a consumer she has a right to know if places she chooses to eat are clean, safe or have any health violations.

“While my family doesn’t eat out often, I should be able to choose where to take my family and where to spend my money through informed choices,” McMillan said. “If a restaurant has serious health code violations that could make my family sick, I would choose not to go there.”

When asked if she would get up and leave an establishment upon finding violation(s) on the public website, she said she wasn’t sure. She said it would depend on the violation. If the violation was a minor one that would not affect the health of her family then she would most likely stay and enjoy her meal. If it was a major violation that she felt would be putting her health and the health of her family at risk, then she would definitely get up and leave.

Who knows how this will play out, but in the end technology seems to be bringing more and more information to consumers and they like this.  It’s their dollars and health and that seem to be what counts.

– Edited by Melinda Peirce

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