Wednesday, December 11, 2013
By Randy Billings firstname.lastname@example.org
PORTLAND - Unlike in most other states, there is no easily accessible way for diners in Maine to look up the inspection history of their favorite restaurant.
The inspection reports maintained by the state's Health Inspection Program are accessible only through a time-consuming and costly manual process.
Last fall, the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram requested all state restaurant inspections over the last five years, so it could build an online database for readers. (The paper already maintains a similar database for Portland restaurants, which are inspected by the city rather than the state.)
The state replied that it did not have an easy way to transfer the statewide electronic inspection reports on a disc or thumb drive for the newspaper. Instead, someone would manually have to look through the database, call up an inspection, convert it to a PDF document for printing and emails.
All told, it would take 201 hours and cost more than $3,000 to get five years' worth of reports, the state said. Similar costs would be incurred to receive reports on a regular basis going forward, the department said.
The paper offered to help to create a way to get the information -- either the reports themselves or the critical information from those reports. However, after months of negotiations, it proved an impossible task.
The state was able to provide a spreadsheet showing a list of restaurants inspected over the last five years. It also provided a separate spreadsheet showing establishments that failed, or were closed as a result of their inspections, but the state had that information only for the last three years. The paper was charged $290 for the information.
Those state records were incomplete or potentially misleading, however. If a restaurant changed its ownership or name, the state's spreadsheet listed only the current restaurant name, rather than the name of the restaurant at the time of the inspection. That means a previous restaurant's past inspection problems could haunt a new establishment that opens in that location.
For example, the Deer Run Tavern in Yarmouth was inspected three times since 2010, two of which were prompted by complaints and one of which resulted in a closure. However, the state's spreadsheet attaches that inspection history to You Wanna Pizza Me, which has been open at the same location only for two months and has passed its inspection.
The Lotus Blossom Chinese Restaurant in Farmington is in a similar situation. State records show that establishment as being designated an imminent health hazard three times in the past three years. However, two of those hazard rulings were for the Fortune Fountain Restaurant, which used to be located at 605 Wilton Road.
In early April, the state formally denied the newspaper's request for complete inspection reports in a letter from Lisa Roy, the head of the Health Inspection Program. Roy said the state is working on upgrading its database, which cannot run routine queries for information about complaints, common violations or certain types of license-specific information.
"Given the thousands of inspection reports created each year, converting the current system to a readable, accessible format for viewing by the public would mean hundreds of hours of work at our office," Roy wrote.
"Given our agency's current work demands and limited resources, processing this request would clearly delay and inconvenience the HIP's and the (Office of Information Technology's) regular work activities," she added. "Therefore we must deny your request at this time."
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: