Less than 44 percent of Chicago restaurants and 24.8 percent of bars are being inspected as often as state law requires — undermining public trust and jeopardizing state funding — because the city’s Department of Public Health is “seriously understaffed,” Inspector General Joe Ferguson has concluded.
State law requires the city to inspect high-risk food establishments twice a year. The category includes restaurants, hospital kitchens, day care centers and schools that prepare food on site.
If the risk of food-borne illness is “medium” — a category that includes groceries, bakeries, delis and schools serving food prepared off-site — inspections are required once a year. Low-risk establishment — including gas stations, convenience stores and bars — need to be inspected only every two years.
But after auditing 2015 inspections, Ferguson concluded that the Health Department is falling far short of those staggered standards and would need at least 94 food inspectors — 56 more than it has on staff — to abide by those state requirements.
In the high-risk category that includes restaurants, the Health Department met the state standard only 43.9 percent of the time. In the low-risk category that includes bars, it was a dismal 24.8 percent. The city’s inundated army of 38 food inspectors met the state standard for 80.1 percent of the medium-risk establishments.
In all, the city conducted 20,900 food inspections in 2015. That’s nearly 10,000 short of the 30,026 inspections it was supposed to do.
“CDPH’s inability to meet the state standards not only undermines public trust in the city’s capacity to fulfill this fundamental local governmental function. It also places at risk millions of dollars in annual grant funding” that totaled $2.5 million last year, Ferguson wrote in his executive summary.
“For at least the past few years, CDPH has maintained its eligibility for these funds by securing from the Illinois Department of Public Health approval of a series of ‘corrective action plans,’ which allows less than full compliance. There is no guarantee, however, that [the state] will continue to accommodate the city in this manner.”
Ferguson noted that Chicago is the “only jurisdiction in Illinois that has failed to comply” with the state’s inspection frequency regulations for consecutive years.
He advised the Emanuel administration to work with the state to develop a food inspection schedule that is “both practically effective and financially feasible.”
If that fails, Ferguson urged Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Julie Morita to “secure sufficient funding to achieve compliance” with the existing rules, including grant funds.
The Health Department has promised to follow those recommendations to the letter.
“While we appreciate the Inspector General’s review, Chicagoans can have confidence that their food is safe because it was prepared in a sanitary kitchen, thanks to the work our health inspectors do to ensure restaurants and establishments across the city meet the health code,” mayoral spokesperson Lauren Huffman wrote in an emailed statement.
“We are committed to keeping our restaurants clean and our residents safe from food-borne illnesses, despite the fact that we have long faced a lack of appropriate funding by the state to meet their own requirements.”
Ferguson noted that food inspection revenue — including fines, re-inspection fees and a chunk of licensing fees — are earmarked for the city’s corporate fund. Those revenues do not bankroll the Food Protection Division.
The current fees also “bear little or no relationship to the actual cost of conducting food inspections,” the inspector general said. It costs $103.84 to conduct a re-inspection. That’s more than double the $50 re-inspection fee.
“To the extent necessary, the city should consider funding additional positions through the fee, fine and license revenue generated by food inspection operations that currently is not directed back in to the program, but rather is directed to the corporate fund,” the inspector general wrote.
The Health Department should also work with the Office of Budget and Management to adjust “fee, fine and licensing rates to bring them into closer alignment with program costs,” Ferguson said.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he has not yet read Ferguson’s latest audit. But the mayor said he would do what’s necessary to make certain “that people can go into a bar or restaurant with confidence as it relates to the cleaning of it.”
Shortly after taking office, 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.”
Last year, 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 had just 42 employees charged with overseeing 15,000 food establishments. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Chicago needs to do more with less.
“This new tool helps us better direct resources to service those restaurants most in need,” Morita said then.
Gerrin Cheek Butler, the department’s director of food protection services, said the earlier the inspection, the better it is for restaurant owners, employees and patrons.
“This innovation allows us to give guidance to establishments earlier, so they can make the necessary correction and get back to serving their customers. … This also helps ensure possible problems do not become worse over time,” Butler siad.
Although the city is falling far short of the state standard, Ferguson noted that the Health Department “did conduct timely re-inspections” in response to public complaints about food establishments registered with its 311-non-emergency system.
Food inspection information posted on the city’s all-purpose data portal was also “complete and accurate,” the audit showed.