Pennsylvania restaurant inspections to be aggregated online

Before the end of this year, diners should be able to go online to get details on how clean an eatery is

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Sometime before the end of this year, Pennsylvanians heading out to dinner anywhere in the state should be able to go online and get a glimpse of how clean the restaurant kitchens are before deciding where to eat.

For the last two years, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture has been working on a system to electronically collect thousands of restaurant inspection reports each month from health departments scattered across the state and then post the reports in a central location on the department's website.

While there's more work to be done, the goal is to have the system functioning within the next year, according to Lydia Johnson, director of the agriculture department's bureau of food safety and laboratory services.

A number of health departments statewide, including Allegheny County's, already post restaurant inspections online, but many others do not. Even in places where reports are available online, having them available from across the state all in one spot would be convenient for people dining outside their hometowns.

The state agriculture department conducts some 40,000 annual inspections at restaurants and other food facilities in locales that do not have their own inspection programs. It makes those reports available online.

But an estimated 60,000 other restaurant inspections statewide are handled by nearly 170 individual municipalities and counties that have varying capabilities and policies for providing the public with online access.

The impetus for putting all restaurant reports online came from a state law that took effect in January 2011 updating regulations for restaurant inspections and requiring all health departments in the state to submit their inspection reports to the agriculture department each month.

That law did not mandate that reports be posted publicly online, but the agriculture department decided it would do so in the interest of transparency, Ms. Johnson said.

The department had hoped to have the project completed by now but the technical aspect has been challenging, she said. In some jurisdictions, inspectors still record food safety violations on paper instead of electronically, for example.

About a year ago, the department finished developing proprietary software for automating inspection reports and modernizing the inspection process. Ms. Johnson called the software "cutting edge" and one that "other states want to emulate."

So far, the department has provided equipment and training to about 60 local health departments in the state to help them convert their systems to the new software.

Health departments that choose not to use the software still will be required to provide their inspection data to the department, Ms. Johnson said.

"We will give them a form to complete and return to us electronically," she said.

To see inspection reports for restaurants in Allegheny County, visit webapps.achd.net/Restaurant. For restaurant inspections handled by the state agriculture department, visit www.eatsafepa.com.

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Patricia Sabatini: psabatini@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3066.


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