The roundups of restaurant inspection reports that run in The Kansas City Star and on KansasCity.com are always popular with readers. But they also bring up questions and complaints, from restaurateurs and their patrons alike.
I’m sure it will surprise no one to hear that I’ve spoken to the owners of several establishments who have been understandably upset to read about a bad inspection in the pages of The Star.
One Kansas City restaurant asked me how the paper had the right to publish the results, insisting that they are a private matter between the business and the Kansas City Health Department.
That isn’t the case. Those reports are clearly public records, generated by the city government specifically for the protection of its residents. They’re freely available to anyone who wants to view them, including journalists.
Multiple different agencies make the inspections in the metro area, with varying criteria. The Star’s Joyce Smith looks at reports from the Kansas Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Health Division of the Jackson County Public Works Department, the Platte County Health Department and other agencies throughout the metro area.
Smith tells me she always reaches out to the owners or managers of restaurants named in her reports for reaction. That’s the right thing to do ethically. Some do respond, but others decline to comment.
Some readers ask why The Star doesn’t report on violations that they know certain restaurants have received. For example, I recently got an email from a man who had planned to have dinner with his wife at a well-regarded Leawood establishment.
“We were seated within viewing distance of the kitchen,” he wrote. “Long story short: After several minutes of watching the restaurant staff repeatedly prepare, handle, and plate food with their bare hands (and without washing them), we walked out. I reported my observations to the Kansas Department of Agriculture which found four priority violations and one priority foundation violation.”
Why had this case not shown up in a subsequent report in The Star, he wondered? I asked reporter Smith about the criteria she uses when publishing lists of inspection results.
“In Kansas I now do six or more ‘priority’ violations,” she told me. “The department had changed from ‘critical violations’ to ‘priority’ and ‘priority foundation’ violations.
“We have tweaked it several times to make sure I am getting the ones that are really a problem. Now I go through the reports each day myself and would do a story on one violation if it was a roach or rat problem.”
Of course, that introduces some subjectivity into the process, but I think that’s a reasonable approach overall. She noted that the recent reports on the restaurant my emailer had been to have been rather minor, and haven’t hit the threshold number of six.
Readers tell me they appreciate the reports because they help in making informed decisions about where to eat. But my emailer above identified another good point: “I also think it creates accountability on those agencies performing the inspections, knowing that their results will be in the public record.”
These processes should be transparent. And I agree with readers who tell me they’re important to cover.