Some of Connecticut’s most popular restaurants have a history of health violations, but you might never know about them.
Despite living in the age of the Internet, most cities and towns in our state are still doing inspections on paper, making it difficult to find out how your favorite eateries are performing.
Shannon Berton got salmonella at a New Haven restaurant and said she’s a lot more careful since about how her food is prepared.
“The abdominal cramps, that was like the primary thing. It was something that made you drop to the ground,” she said.
Berton’s story is not an isolated one.
An estimated 48 million Americans get sick from foodborne illness in homes and restaurants every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Records NBC Connecticut Investigates reviewed show the restaurant where Berton got sick failed a half dozen health inspections over the past two and a half years.
Connecticut has 66 health agencies, which are supposed to conduct inspections three times per year at restaurants where hot food is served for issues that can cause foodborne illness, close any restaurant that fails an inspection and then inspect it again.
However, the state does not require restaurants to post inspection scores online or in restaurants.
In other states if you want to check and see if your favorite restaurant has any health violations, you can check it out online. In Connecticut you have to go to your local health department, ask for the individual file for your favorite restaurant, and then look up each inspection individually.
NBC Connecticut Investigates asked the West Hartford-Bloomfield Health District for restaurant inspections going back three years.
We were only allowed to look at the records for one restaurant at a time. The inspections are on paper, kept in individual folders and are not necessarily in chronological order.
When asked about access to the records and the efficiency of the system for consumers as well as the health departments, Health District Director Steve Huleatt said, “ I mean I keep saying to you, consumers can come here, and we’ll give them that information.”
People seldom do that, according to Huleatt.
What are consumers missing without reading these restaurant inspections?
NBC Connecticut Investigates spent days reviewing restaurant inspections and found dangerous, repeated violations for failure to keep food at proper temperatures, and more:
• One restaurant had toxic chemicals stored in a food prep area.
• An inspector discovered moldy fruit at another.
• And then there was the report that showed that an inspector found mouse droppings in the flour in one restaurant.
While some were isolated incidents and the restaurant fixed the issue by the next inspection, there were other cases in which restaurants were found to be in violation year after year, but consumers would never know unless they spent days looking at the paper records.
Bill Marler, an attorney specializing in foodborne illness cases, said if Connecticut health departments were more transparent about restaurant inspections it might help patrons avoid restaurants that are repeat violators and reduce their chances of getting a food related illness.
“If you know that a restaurant has a food safety problem, or a series of food safety problems, or they’ve had an outbreak, or they continue to have bad inspections, as a consumer, you wanna know that,” Marler said.
In hundreds of areas around the country, restaurant inspections are readily available online. You can simply click on your favorite eatery and review their inspection reports. But just a handful of health districts do this in Connecticut, and not West Hartford-Bloomfield.
After we asked for restaurant inspections from the Hartford health department, we got a stack of restaurant inspections. We asked, “Is that everything?” and they said “You tell us.”
Months later, we got to inspect piles of restaurant reviews, which were not organized by restaurant but rather by restaurant inspector.
Liany Arroyo, Hartford’s new health director, told NBC Connecticut Investigates the restaurant inspection file there, “…needs a humongous overhaul. We need a digitized system that allows inspectors to immediately do an inspection, upload it into a database, so that it’s much easier for us to have you come in and say, ‘Here, here’s all the inspections for the last two years, on this tablet, have at it.’ Or, ‘Here, we’re gonna print this out and give it to you.’”
In New Haven, we had to ask for the restaurant inspections we wanted in advance and show up at a ninth-floor office to view them.
When asked about making it easier for the public to get access, the New Haven health department said, “We’re working on it. We’re supposed to be getting digitized.”
But change may be on the way.
This year, the state will adopt a new food code, which will change what is analyzed during restaurant inspections.
Connecticut food protection program supervisor Tracey Weeks said the state will eventually post a lot of the inspections online and someday, maybe, even on an app.
The state restaurant association said it is also in favor of more restaurant inspection transparency, pointing out online reviews of their clients can sometimes have false information.
After this report, legislators on the Public Health Committee told NBC Connecticut Investigates that they will consider changes to make restaurant health inspections more transparent.
“They really should be put on the computer so that people have access to be able to see the scores of the restaurants,” said state Rep. Phil Young (D-Stratford).
“I don’t see that it’s going to be that much of an increase in cost in manpower or womanpower to make this happen,” said Rep. Nicole Klarides-Ditria (R-Seymour).
Both said they will pursue legislation to get the information online.
Here are links to the health departments in Connecticut that do make inspection information available online: