State agency fails to post hundreds of verified complaints against restaurants

By: - June 19, 2020 11:35 am

The Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals is responsible for inspecting food establishments such as grocery stores, restaurants and convenience stores, as well as food processing plants, hotels and motels. (Photo illustration by Clark Kauffman, Iowa Capital Dispatch)

For at least 18 months, the state of Iowa has failed to publish the findings of hundreds of restaurant inspections triggered by verified consumer complaints.

In addition, none of the findings that stem from “virtual inspections,” which are being conducted now without an onsite visit due to the COVID-19 pandemic, are being posted to the state’s website.

The Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals handles food-establishment inspections for most of Iowa. It posts the results of routine, scheduled inspections to a website that claims to show “the violations from the last inspection.”

This week, after the Iowa Capital Dispatch asked about the availability of inspection reports that are being handled remotely due to the pandemic, department officials indicated that for as long as anyone could recall the department’s website has excluded the findings of inspections that are triggered by consumer complaints.

Department officials say they first became aware of the issue in January 2019 and attempted, without success, to correct the problem.

Mark Speltz, the food and consumer safety bureau chief for the department, noted that the department has never attempted to publish the results of complaint inspections that aren’t founded or verified by the inspectors since the restaurants themselves aren’t required to post those documents.

However, he said, the department has intended to post to its website the findings related to verified complaints, since those also have to be posted in the food establishments.

Unfortunately, he said, the department learned at some point in the past that there was a “bug” in the website’s coding that was preventing even the verified inspection reports from being posted to the site.

“We’re currently working on that and trying to get those verified reports back onto the system,” he said.

Department officials say about 31% of the complaints it receives about food establishments are verified through the inspection process.

In 2019 alone, there were 1,042 complaints received, and 330 of those were verified by the department but excluded from the website.

Speltz also said none of the virtual inspections performed since mid-March due to the pandemic have been posted to the website, either, but that, he said, is by design. Due to relatively short period of time in which the agency had to develop the virtual-inspection process, he said, it was decided to exclude the results of those visits from the site.

“Our developer would have to go in and develop and code and enhance the system for those things to appear,” Speltz said. “So, with the short window in which we were implementing this, and the short window in which we’ll probably be doing (virtual inspections) ongoing, we haven’t been able to — we haven’t even requested, honestly — that those get put onto the website.”

Speltz acknowledged that if an inspector conducting a virtual visit to a restaurant entered a different code into the form, that might lead to the inspection report being posted to the website for the public to read.

He noted that nothing in Iowa law requires the agency to  publicly post the findings of any of its food-establishment inspections.

“We try and put that stuff on the website for the public and, you know, it’s not something we’re required to do, we just think that we want to provide the public with as much information as we can,” he said. “There’s nothing in statute or rule that requires us to even post stuff there. So we try to do what we can do within our resources to put information on the website that we would find valuable in a way that hopefully the general user could find it.”

The Capital Dispatch reported earlier this week that although the state has allowed restaurants to reopen at full capacity, Iowa’s food-safety inspectors are continuing to keep their distance.

At least 20% of the food-establishment inspections over the past three months have been performed using only “virtual” technology, with no inspector setting foot inside the business to measure the temperature of food, gauge the overall cleanliness or look for signs of rodents.

In some of the final reports, inspectors wrote that they performed their work through Google Hangout, photos taken by the businesses, and telephone conversations with the proprietors, to gauge compliance. Some of the reports also include the disclaimer that due to the technological limitations of these tools, not all of the findings “may fully reflect what was assessed or observed” or even be “applicable to this inspection.”

Apart from the formalized inspection process, DIA recently began offering “virtual food-safety checks,” with no threat of regulatory action, to restaurants, grocery stores, bars and other food businesses that are reopening after being ordered closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Food establishments in the 63 counties where DIA licenses and inspects such businesses can go online now and complete a form to request a voluntary food-safety check.

DIA says it plans to resume traditional, on-site inspections at restaurants and other food establishments sometime in July.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.