HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Secret recipes, that's okay. But secrets about food safety is not. Which is why the state is working on a new placard system designed to let people know how clean restaurants are.
The Highway Inn in Waipahu has been serving local favorites for 65 years. It's one of the 10,000 places to eat statewide, all of which will soon be subject to a new food safety placard system.
"I think as an operator if you're compliant it's not really a big deal to have a placard. In fact it would probably be more helpful if you're compliant," said Monica Toguchi, Highway Inn Owner.
The Green "Pass" placard means the restaurant has had one major violation or less that was corrected. The Yellow "Conditional Pass" means there were at least two major violations that are yet to be fixed. The Red "Closed" means the food permit was revoked because of immediate danger and the establishment is shut down until further notice.
"The main point of this is to reduce the incidents of food borne illness risk factors and that will hopefully translate into less food borne illness in Hawaii so it's just protecting public health," said Peter Oshiro, State Department of Health Environmental Health Program Manager.
"Customers love it. You can look at a glance and see if it's a red, green or yellow and then make your choice on whether you want to eat there or not," said Tom Frigge, TOBE Co. Food Safety, a private company that teaches food safety classes and helps restaurants maintain safe operations.
"It's not a bad system and we're going to support it," said Roger Morey, Hawaii Restaurant Association Executive Director.
That said the Hawaii Restaurant Association has concerns. For example, many of the 850 members are worried if a restaurant gets a yellow conditional pass on a Friday of a holiday weekend an inspector wouldn't be back for four days to re-inspect. That is a detail the state says still needs to be worked out.
"If you're going to a white table cloth restaurant and you see a conditional pass then that's like being closed down," said Morey.
State staffing levels are also going up. There are 11 food inspectors now. There will be 25 by the end of the year. That's good news since a restaurant now is only inspected once every two and a half years. It should be as much as three times a year.
"It will allow us to do more inspections and that's the main thing," said Oshiro. "This additional staffing will get us much closer to the three times a year requirement from the once every two years we're at now."
The state is also entering the 21st century and will put inspection reports online for all to see rather than stuck in a file cabinet. People will be able to search inspection reports of restaurants starting in about nine months.
"That will put the fire under us restaurateurs to make sure that we're compliant," said Toguchi. "I think for the public interest they have the right to know that they are eating in a clean establishment. Alternatively from the business side, everything comes at a cost. Every regulation imposed upon small businesses in particular has a cost."
"It's hard to argue against transparency. This goes back to the grading system, if it's consistent and fair then its fine," said Morey.
Restaurants will pay for the cost of the upgrades. A permit will go up from $47 on average to $200 for the year. The state says that equates to less than one cent a meal so there shouldn't be any impact on customers and zero cost to the industry.
The state plans to hold public meetings on the issue in the coming months and then implement the new placard system early next year.