Like all busy restaurants in Allegheny County, the Original Hot Dog Shop in Oakland is supposed to get a thorough checkup at least once a year by health inspectors probing for problems in the kitchen that could make people sick.
But when an inspector popped in this spring for "the O's" annual review, he was nine months overdue. That meant the bustling eatery -- known for satisfying late-night cravings seven days a week with its burgers, dogs and large-size baskets of fries bigger than a customer's head -- went some 21 months between inspections.
During the inspection in April, the restaurant was cited for five critical violations, which are the most serious types of problems that carry the potential to cause foodborne illnesses. The problems included foods being held at unsafe temperatures, foods not protected from cross contamination, and not having at least one worker on duty who is certified in safe food handling practices. All of the problems have been corrected, the Original's owner, Terry Campasano, said last week.
That tardy inspection was far from an isolated case, a review of the county health department's online database by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette found.
Altogether, the newspaper checked the most recent reports for some 765 restaurants, delis, sushi bars and other food facilities in five geographically diverse regions of the county. Inspections were counted as late only if they were overdue by more than a month, meaning the facility had gone more than 13 months between inspections.
In Oakland, which had the worst on-time performance, 30 percent of inspections were late, with 22 percent overdue by more than three months.
Among the four other regions, in Bethel Park, 12 percent of inspections were not performed on time; in Ross, it was 28 percent; and in Moon and Monroeville, it was 29 percent.
Taking the five regions together, 26 percent of inspections -- one in four -- were late.
The results mirror the findings from two prior reviews of county inspections that were done in 2008 and 2010.
A prominent food safety expert at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, Sarah Klein, has called annual inspections the "bare minimum" for trying to protect the public's health. Most health departments require more frequent visits, she said.
Allegheny County Health Department director Karen Hacker, who succeeded the late Bruce Dixon in September, said she would need time to review the matter.
"Clearly this is an area I need to focus attention on," Dr. Hacker said after reviewing the list of late inspections provided by the newspaper. "I think it's really important to do a full assessment of our food program and understand whether the issues are issues of staffing, management or prioritization. At this point, given my short term here, I don't have that information for you."
Dr. Hacker noted health inspectors often spend extra time on follow-up inspections at certain restaurants to ensure that problems are fixed. The more reinspections they must perform, the less time they have for regular visits elsewhere, she said.
Indeed, the review of records found numerous instances where inspectors were forced to return repeatedly to the same restaurant.
For example, Freddie's Grill on Library Road in Bethel Park was visited 12 times by health inspectors over the past two years. The tally included seven follow-up visits after an inspection in June this year during which the restaurant was cited for 12 critical violations, including a cook with a wound on his thumb who wasn't wearing gloves.
The owner of Freddie's Grill, Ron Kragnes, did not return a phone call seeking comment.
In Monroeville, Sammy's Kebab House drew nine visits over the past two years. In Ross, inspectors showed up six times this year at Bruegger's on Mc-Knight Road and eight times at Nordstrom Marketplace Cafe at Ross Park Mall. In Oakland, Tong's Cuisine was visited eight times over the past two years.
"It is our mission to keep the public safe," Dr. Hacker said about the frequency of reinspections.
"If there is a critical issue identified, we have to give [restaurants] the opportunity to fix that and go back and make sure they have done that. If you have multiple visits, it takes away from doing other things."
When inspectors are tied up with repeat offenders, other inspections can fall through the cracks.
In Ross, for example, an inspector showed up at Hal's Bar & Grill in November some 14 months late (meaning the facility went two years and two months between inspections). During the late visit, the inspector turned up 10 critical violations, including multiple foods being held at unsafe temperatures.
Hal's also was cited for 17 lesser infractions, such as mold in the ice machine and "fuzzy grease" on ceiling tiles and ceiling fans in the kitchen. A reinspection was pending. The bar's owner, William Koenemund, said last week that all of the problems have been corrected.
Dr. Hacker said staffing levels for food safety inspectors are one area she plans to review.
A 2008 study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that Allegheny County's food inspectors had the second-highest caseload among the 20 health departments it reviewed: 440 restaurants per inspector compared with 200 to 300 handled by inspectors in the majority of other regions.
Since then, the workload has only gotten heavier. As of late last month, the health department said it had 16 full-time inspectors in the food safety division responsible for 7,349 food facilities, which works out to 459 per inspector.
Some food safety experts say one way to reduce the need for frequent reinspections is to translate inspection results into grades or scores posted on restaurant doors. The specter of having to display a poor grade publicly is a powerful incentive to act fast to fix serious health code violations, they say.
Under Allegheny County's current program, health inspectors record violations but do not give restaurants grades or scores. The department has the power to post yellow "Consumer Alert" decals in restaurant windows to warn the public about serious uncorrected violations, but rarely does so.
The health department under Dr. Dixon for years had promised to put an A-B-C grading system in place. The Allegheny County Board of Health approved a grading proposal in January 2011, only to kill it several months later in the wake of pressure from prominent local restaurant owners who complained it was unnecessary and potentially damaging to their businesses.
This year, the department has been working on a new grading proposal.
Dr. Hacker said she hoped that grades would act as an incentive for dirty restaurants to clean up problems quickly. But she said the main objective of putting scores on doors would be to make inspections more transparent for the public.
Although reports are available online on the health department's website, health code jargon can make them difficult and cumbersome to interpret. "It's not that simple for everyone what the inspections mean," Dr. Hacker said. "Grading takes that information and makes it clear so the customer can [select where to eat] based on an informed decision."
Dr. Hacker said she was unsure when a grading proposal might be ready to present to the board of health for approval.
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who has been pushing the department for a restaurant grading program since early in his nearly 2-year-old administration, said last week he expects grades will begin going up on restaurant doors or windows sometime in 2014. "It's a priority," he said.
"It's something we are committed to doing." When asked about one in four inspections being late, Mr. Fitzgerald said the health department has issues that must be fixed.
"Dr. Hacker is really doing a terrific job putting people in place who can do the job the public expects us to do," he said. "We will have to figure out a way to do the inspections and other things that need to be done so the public feels confidence. I have every confidence she will move this in the right direction."
Inspection reports for Allegheny County restaurants are available online at webapps.achd.net/Restaurant.
Patricia Sabatini: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3066.