The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture has made fixes to its finicky online restaurant inspection database to make it easier for diners who want a glimpse of how clean restaurant kitchens are before they decide where to eat.
The search engine -- www.EatSafePa.com -- has become easier to use because of tweaks that make it less sensitive to the way restaurant names are entered.
Typing in "McDonald's" with or without the apostrophe, or in upper or lowercase letters, for example, doesn't affect the results. Previously, if the user did not enter the name of a food facility exactly as it appeared on the inspection report, the report did not come up.
The state agriculture department -- which conducts health inspections at some 40,000 restaurants and other food facilities outside of Allegheny County -- made the changes after a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story last summer detailed problems with the system.
The outside contractor that handles the database -- Computer Aid Inc., based in Allentown, Pa. -- also has been asked to update the search engine's address field to make it easier to use, department spokeswoman Samantha Krepps said this week.
As it stands, the quirky system requires users to know, for example, that they must leave off the period when abbreviating street addresses that contain Avenue, Drive, Street or Route. If they mistakenly spell out the word or abbreviate it as in Ave., including the period, the search fails.
Changes aside, the site remains a challenge for people looking for inspection reports for the food court restaurants at service plazas on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Inspection reports for turnpike rest stops can't be found by typing in the individual restaurant's name, such as Burger King or Pizza Hut.
One option is for users to enter "HMS Host" in the search box, which is the name of the company licensed to operate the food courts at the service plazas. Individual restaurants are listed under one license because they share common areas and equipment, Ms. Krepps said.
The other option that the department recommended was to enter "Travel Plazas" (not service plazas) and sift through the 100 reports that come up with the words "travel" or "plaza" in the name.
The awkward setup will remain in place for the foreseeable future.
"We have addressed everything we can related to the service plazas," Lydia Johnson, director of the department's bureau of food safety, said last week.
She said people who need help finding inspection reports may contact the food safety unit at 1-717-787-4315.
Adding another layer of confusion, the agriculture department does not inspect the restaurants in six counties and roughly 140 local jurisdictions statewide that have their own inspection programs. In Allegheny County, for instance, restaurants are inspected by the county health department, which posts the reports online at webapps.achd.net/Restaurant/.
Inspections for four of the 17 service plazas on the turnpike are handled at the county level. They include the Oakmont Plum plaza in Allegheny County, Peter J. Camiel plaza in Chester County, and Valley Forge and King of Prussia plazas, both in Philadelphia County.
For the last three years, the agriculture department has been working on a system to electronically collect restaurant inspection reports from local jurisdictions statewide each month and aggregate them online in one location.
That way, Pennsylvanians heading out to dinner anywhere in the state could go to a single source for inspection reports.
Ms. Johnson had expected the central system to be ready by the end of last year. Last week, she said the job probably would take another six to 12 months to complete.
She said progress has been slow because a number of small health departments still have paper-based inspection systems and don't provide the public with online access to the reports.
Patricia Sabatini: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3066.