Thumbing through files of dusty public records may have become unnecessary because of the switch to online information, but that doesn't mean bureaucratic obstacles are a thing of the past.
Today's case in point is the state Department of Agriculture's website, which contains food safety inspection reports for most parts of Pennsylvania. The reports are there, but good luck finding them.
Post-Gazette reporter Patricia Sabatini, who is an authority on the topic of restaurant reports and who has produced numerous stories based on what they contain and their accessibility, tried to tap into evaluations of restaurants that operate in the Pennsylvania Turnpike's 17 service plazas. She entered the names of restaurants and their addresses as instructed, yet she couldn't come up with a single report. Her expertise is relevant because if she can't access the records, how can the average citizen?
Consumers need the equivalent of a secret decoder ring to figure out how to get results. First, they have to figure out an address for the Sbarro's, Burger King or Starbucks they want to check on. This can be tricky since the restaurants sit in turnpike plazas.
Even with a proper address, the website won't yield results unless they're typed in exactly as the system requires. For instance: Don't spell "route;" use "rte" instead. Use "Ave" because including a period as in "Ave." will skew the results. Sometimes the fast-food chain must be spelled "McDonald's," but other times the system wants to see "McDonalds."
The website is the sole source of food safety reports for restaurants in approximately half of Pennsylvania, where the agriculture department conducts safety inspections. For the other half, including Allegheny County, local municipalities or counties conduct their own inspections.
The state system's quirks make it inscrutable, inefficient and a mockery of the notion that the department is providing potential patrons with important information to guide their restaurant choices. The department offers its phone number, 717-787-4315, as an alternative source of information, and a spokeswoman promised improvements in the future.
But the failures of the system make it clear that restaurants across the state, like those in Allegheny County, could better serve consumers by posting the results of safety inspections at their entrances. It would be easy to find them there.