Chicago will hire 20 more food inspectors and three more supervisors to bolster a restaurant inspection team so “seriously understaffed,” it has undermined public trust and jeopardized state funding, Inspector General Joe Ferguson said Wednesday.
After auditing 2015 inspections, Ferguson concluded last fall that the city’s Department of Public Health Department was falling so far short of state mandates, it would need to hire 56 additional food inspectors to catch up.
State law requires the city to inspect high-risk food establishments like restaurants, groceries, bakeries and delis every six months.
If the risk of food-borne illness and other sanitary violations falls into the “medium” category, annual inspections are required. Low-risk establishments need to be inspected only every two years.
In the high-risk category, the Health Department met the state standard only 43.9 percent of the time. In the low-risk category, it was a dismal 24.8 percent.
On Wednesday, Ferguson released a “follow-up inquiry” that should reassure skittish foodies in a city just voted the nation’s best restaurant city by Bon Appetit Magazine.
The Health Department is “refining several proposals to hire 20 additional sanitarians and three supervisors” to be included in the city’s 2018 budget, Ferguson said.
“This personnel increased, based on historical performance and in consideration of state law allowing for the self-inspection of low-risk food establishments, will allow the department to comply with the state’s required inspection frequency,” the inspector general wrote.
Ferguson’s proposal that the city “right-size fee, fine and licensing rates to bring them into closer alignment with program costs” is also a work in progress.
The Health Department has concluded that it collected nearly $7.5 million in revenue from re-inspection fees, fines and licenses last year, nearly $3 million less than the cost of operating the program.
The analysis also showed that Chicago “tended to have lower fees” than other municipalities.
But the Health Department is still hoping to work with the Office of Budget and Management on a “comprehensive evaluation of the fine and fee collections processes to identify opportunities for improvement,” the inspector general said.
Last fall, Ferguson concluded that Chicago restaurants and food establishments were not being inspected nearly as often as state law requires.
He advised the Emanuel administration to work with the state to develop a food inspection schedule that is “both practically effective and financially feasible.”
But Wednesday’s follow-up noted that the state’s Department of Public Health was “unwilling to make changes….because doing so would require amending the rules governing” Local Health Protection Grants.
The state “anticipates reviewing and updating the rules” next year “with a goal of implementing those changes in 2019,” Ferguson wrote.
“We respectfully urge [the state] to follow through on its signaled intent and work with [the city] to develop and implement effective standards that are both practically feasible and designed to provide transparent and accountable information to patrons of Chicago’s food establishments,” Ferguson wrote.
Shortly after taking office, Mayor Rahm Emanuel started delivering on a promise to consolidate the number of city licenses and took aim at another pet peeve of business: redundant inspections.
The long-awaited reforms began with restaurants, which at the time were forced to endure as many as 20 inspections before opening their doors and managed to fail at least one of those initial inspections 67 percent of the time.
The application process for new restaurants was dramatically altered with zoning and location reviews upfront. The change was designed to reduce the need for costly “course corrections.”
In 2015, Emanuel used a $1 million prize from a philanthropic organization formed by retired New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to study using predictive analytics to determine which of Chicago’s 15,000 restaurants and food establishments to inspect first based on how likely they are to face health code violations.
The researchers identified a host of risk factors that could trigger health code violations. They include 311 requests, sanitation complaints at establishments in the area, and information on previous inspections and permits.
All of those factors were thrown into the mix to create a “predictive analytics model” used to determine which restaurants needed to be inspected first to get ahead of critical violations that posed the greatest threat of food-borne illness.
At the time, the $3.1 million Food Sanitation Division was comprised of just 42 employees charged with overseeing 15,000 food establishments. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Chicago needs to find a way to do more with less.