As Portland’s food scene grows, inspectors start to keep score

Casey Turner of El Rayo Taqueria in Portland makes a $5 burrito during a snowstorm Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. The Mexican eatery offers the $5 burrito special whenever the city calls a parking ban.
Casey Turner of El Rayo Taqueria in Portland makes a $5 burrito during a snowstorm Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. The Mexican eatery offers the $5 burrito special whenever the city calls a parking ban. Buy Photo
Posted June 04, 2013, at 6:29 p.m.
Last modified June 04, 2013, at 7:10 p.m.
Michele Sturgeon, Portland's food service industry health inspector, talks to Anthony Salvaggio, owner of The Maine Squeeze lemonade stand, on the Eastern Promenade in August during the Gentleman of the Road festival.
Andrew Cullen | The Forecaster
Michele Sturgeon, Portland's food service industry health inspector, talks to Anthony Salvaggio, owner of The Maine Squeeze lemonade stand, on the Eastern Promenade in August during the Gentleman of the Road festival.

PORTLAND, Maine — Restaurant professionals gave mixed reviews Tuesday to a city decision to start posting restaurant inspection results on its website.

The move comes less than nine months after an inspector shut down three food-serving waterfront business — the Porthole Restaurant, Comedy Connection and Harbour’s Edge banquet hall — due to a rat infestation and other health code violations at the venues’ shared facilities.

The Porthole has since reopened under new ownership.

The uploading of the inspection documents to PortlandMaine.gov comes after the Portland Press Herald began publishing the same information on its website as part of its coverage of city restaurants and pursuit of statewide inspection data.

Richard Grotton, president of the Maine Restaurant Association, said Portland is the first municipality in the state to take the step.

Three years ago in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg took the then-controversial step of publicizing city restaurant inspections by giving eateries letter grades and, in addition to online, requiring the grades to be posted on the venues’ front doors for all to see. In the Big Apple, city officials are now hailing the bold move as a success, crediting the program with declining restaurant fines and shut-downs as well as an increase in the percentage of eateries receiving “A” grades.

Arlin Smith, co-owner of Eventide Oyster Co. and Hugo’s in Portland, moved from New York to Maine four years ago and is familiar with Bloomberg’s initiative. He understands that inspections are part of the public record, but they can be easily misunderstood and damage a restaurant’s reputation without context.

There are many reasons why an eatery might get a failing grade on an inspection, he said — some more serious than others.

“It’s already public knowledge anyway — if anybody wants it, they can easily get it,” Smith said. “But I think it needs to be fair. If you look at the Porthole that was shut down last year, it was rat infested. That’s a big one. You need to be held accountable as a restaurateur. But you can’t have an open plastic cup of water [nearby] a cook — that’s a failing violation, too.”

Grotton said the inspections can be “subjective.”

“They’re not black and white,” he said. “There’s a lot of gray area. For example, what does ‘conveniently located’ mean with regard to a hand sink?”

Different inspectors will interpret the codes differently, Grotton said, and a restaurant’s failure may have more to do with those interpretations than the safety of its food preparation.

“It’s very easy to put [inspections] up online. It’s very difficult to maintain them accurately,” he said. “You’ve got a database that’s up there, it’s got a score on it, it’s got restaurant names and addresses, but if that restaurant changes ownership or undergoes renovations, they may still have a black mark posted online from three years earlier.”

Under each restaurant listed on the city website, an inspection date and whether the establishment passed or failed is posted. By clicking the “passed” or “failed” link, viewers can read the entire inspection report.

According to Tuesday’s announcement, the website will buttress the inspection documents with “important information for how to interpret the data included in the inspection report[s] as well as ways the public can report a concern.”

Michael Russell, manager of the city’s Environmental Health & Safety Program, said in a statement the city’s decision to post the inspection information on its website came in response to Portland’s “growing reputation as a foodie destination.”

“[I]t is important that tourists and residents alike are able to enjoy dining in establishments that are safe and clean, which is why we want people to be able to check inspection reports and understand what they mean so they can make good choices as to where to dine,” he said. “We also know that restaurant owners and chefs want to do the right thing and are eager for the guidance we can provide. By working together, we are able to both protect the public’s health and support an important local industry.”

The city also announced Tuesday it has established a hotline for restaurateurs to ask food service questions or request an inspection — 756-8365. Portland will offer certified food protection manager classes in July to help restaurant operators comply with health codes requiring at least one such manager to be on each venue’s staff.

Patrons who “witness unsafe food handling practices” or become ill after eating or drinking at an establishment are urged by the city website to contact the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention at 800-821-5821.

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