Learn the Results of Food Safety Inspections in Pennsylvania

If you've ever wondered whether your local grocer's deli case is kept at the right temperature or if the clerk at the ice cream shop washes his hands properly, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture website will give you all you need to know about their food sanitation and cleanliness inspection findings.

Food safety issues take the spotlight more and more today and while many contamination troubles can be traced to the meat packers or fruit and vegetable farms, the local retailer is also a critical link in the food delivery system. Pennsylvania consumers have access to details about thousands of establishments regulated by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. The PDA oversees food retailers like groceries, butcher shops, and any place with a frozen dessert license, and the website gives us information pertaining to inspections over the last two years.

Beginning at the PDA website homepage, (see link below) click on "online services" in the top right of the page and from there click on the link to food safety inspection results. On this page you can search by the name of a particular establishment or look at any county or zipcode.

Let's look at Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh and its suburbs as an example. The search shows 302 individual records. For each facility, the name, address and zipcode is shown, the date of their last inspection, whether they are in or out of compliance with regulations and the number of violations. Because the frozen dessert license falls under state control, some fast food restaurants like Dairy Queen, Chick-fil-A and Wendy's are listed here. You'll notice that most establishments on the list are grocery retailers and the majority of area restaurants aren't covered. This is because those restaurants fall under the review of the Allegheny County Health Department.

The PDA advises consumers to heed this disclosure: "Please remember that any inspection is a "snapshot" of the day and time of the inspection. An inspection conducted on any given day may not be representative of the overall, long-term cleanliness of an establishment. Also, at the time of the inspection, violations are recorded but are often corrected on the spot prior to the inspector leaving the establishment."

Skimming through the pages, it's reassuring to see that most places have no violations or perhaps one, and are in compliance. Unfortunately, good reports are interrupted before we get through the "B's" in this alphabetical listing when we hit Bruno's Butcher Shop, 922 Main St., Sharpsburg, PA. As of its last inspection on January 28, 2008, Bruno's had six violations and is out of compliance. Click on the inspection date and the actual official Food Facility Inspection Report pops up showing all the problems. The word "out" in red ink alerts the consumer to each line item in violation and tells which are repeat violations.

Bruno's report shows that "Soap was not available at the handwash sink in the service case area" and "deli meats opened commercially processed ready to eat food, located in the reach-in and walk-in, and held more than 48 hours, was not date marked". Both are repeat violations. It is in the medium risk category.

Bruno's is a little mom-and-pop type butcher shop in a small town on the northern edge of Pittsburgh, and probably serves a limited area, but the PDA website tells us some surprising details about larger, well-known places with huge clientèles, like Whole Foods. The Whole Foods market at 588 Center Avenue in the East Liberty section is Pittsburgh's first Whole Foods. It's constantly packed with upscale shoppers and is credited with revitalizing an urban district. The store appears immaculate and most shoppers would probably feel confident that it conformed to all health regulations, but we see that as of its inspection on March 10, 2008, Whole Foods was cited for four violations. None were repeat violations, and the store is currently in compliance, but it was placed in the high risk category.

Some of the Whole Foods violations concerned shellfish, such as the line item "Observed live clams, oysters & mussels in common display retail case on common bedding ice and in direct contact with each other. Shellstocks were from different harvest areas and different harvest dates."

Also noted at Whole Foods was a personal cleanliness issue regarding male employees in food prep with beards or goatees who weren't wearing hair restraints.

As the website's disclosure notes, these violations are just a snapshot of the moment when the inspectors drop in, and may not be indicative of overall food safety. As consumers we place our trust, and indeed our very health in the hands of food outlets. Kudos to the inspectors of the PDA for their vigilance and for making all the details available so we may be informed consumers.

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