A year after the state launched color-coded restaurant ratings, the system is going through growing pains. The Hawaii Department of Health still needs to visit about 20% of the 10,152 restaurants statewide. Officials expect to finish the first round of inspections in a couple of months.
When the program began in July 2014, one in three inspections led to a yellow "conditional pass" placard. These days, inspectors hand out yellow signs to roughly one out of every four restaurants, according to DOH officials. 6,486 establishments earned green placards while 1,648 received yellow signs.
"It's something that you should be looking at over a 3 to 5 year period to judge the success of a program. The program is still in its infancy," said Peter Oshiro, DOH's environmental health program manager. The number of food-borne illness cases investigated by the health department annually hasn't declined yet.
The state expected the violations to drop since inspectors started at restaurants with the highest risk levels based on food handling. Those full-service facilities are supposed to be inspected three times a year. Category 2 establishments, typically fast-food eateries, should be visited twice a year. Part of the problems is that 7 of the 50 inspector positions statewide are vacant right now.
"A lot of the new staff that we hired since 2012 and 2013 are still learning the craft, so after 2 to 3 years of actual field experience, then you become efficient," explained Oshiro.
Food safety experts also have some complaints about the changes.
"The biggest frustration that I and my customers have is inconsistency with some of the health inspectors and what they consider violations and not," said Tom Frigge of TOBE Co. Food Safety.
"I think it's more the operator's perception because from our side, it's basically 5 things that are being concentrated on that affect the placarding program. As far as consistency, right now, I think they're very consistent," responded Oshiro.
The state plans to revise the administrative rules to include mandatory food safety education for all restaurant operators.
The state just awarded Digital Health Department, Inc. a $158,000 contract for an electronic food safety system that covers billings, inspections and online public access. Inspectors have been manually filling out paperwork due to problems with the previous vendor.