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Published February 27 2011

Ask Your Government: Restaurant-inspection scores prompt reader inquiry

Dear Teri,

Who in the state is responsible for inspecting the cleanliness of restaurants, cafes, food handlers? Since this is obviously paid by the taxpayers, why do we have to go on a computer to look up how individual restaurants score?

Shouldn’t this info be displayed on the front door of each facility inspected? Or at least published in local newspapers? When we lived in Bloomington, Minn., all restaurants tested during the week (and) their scores were on television one night a week on a news program.

Richard Roberts

West Fargo

Thanks for writing! I contacted the North Dakota Department of Health and received a response from Kenan Bullinger, director of the Division of Food and Lodging. Here’s what

he said:

“The North Department of Health’s Division of Food and Lodging, in addition to eight local health units (city and county), are responsible for licensing and inspecting restaurants in North Dakota.

“Every regulatory jurisdiction licenses restaurants on an annual basis. Those license fees help pay for the costs of conducting those inspections. All copies of inspection reports are open records and available to the public, but the way that information is distributed is decided by that agency.

“Some regulatory jurisdictions have the results of inspections available online through their respective agency websites. Some other states and local jurisdictions have used a grading system for restaurants after each inspection. Some of those require the posting of a letter grade within the window of every restaurant.

“Those systems have received mixed reviews from the public, industry and regulatory agencies. We continue to try and find the best way to get that information to the public, while keeping our primary focus on making sure that restaurants prepare and handle food in the safest way possible to reduce the possibility of foodborne outbreaks.

“Open records requests are not the only way North Dakotans get information on restaurant inspections. It’s important to note that about half of restaurant inspections are completed by the state and the others are completed by local agencies. As mentioned earlier, some local health regulatory jurisdictions in North Dakota use their websites for getting that information out to the public.

“However, those that have developed their computer systems to be able to provide that inspection information have noted that they have very few ‘hits’ to their websites. The North Dakota Department of Health has also explored the possibility of having software written to be able to provide that inspection information on our website.

“We felt the costs of doing so versus the benefits were just not feasible at this time. However, if there was a situation where there was an imminent public health threat to the general public at a restaurant, we would take immediate action to close that restaurant, get the situation corrected and make sure that information was released to the general public.

“However, as stated earlier, our primary focus is to make sure that restaurants prepare and handle food in the safest way possible so the potential for foodborne outbreaks is reduced. We take great pride in the fact that North Dakota has very few confirmed foodborne outbreaks originating from restaurant prepared food.

“That is a credit to the state and local health inspectors that are doing a great job of providing thorough and educational restaurant inspections, keeping those facilities in compliance and reducing the possibility of foodborne outbreaks.”

I also decided to ask Forum Editor Matthew Von Pinnon about the topic. Here’s what he said:

“We have done stories on these inspections and run lists with the data over the years. Those stories and lists always generate a lot of reader interest.”

Do you have a question for a North Dakota government official or agency? Send us your question, and we’ll do our best to find an answer.

E-mail politics@wday.com (Subject: Ask your government).

You may also write to Teri Finneman, c/o Forum Communications, Press Room, State Capitol, Bismarck, ND 58505.

Please include your name, town and a phone number to reach you for verification.


Teri Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.