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For a Penn student looking to escape the dining halls on a Saturday night, it can be hard deciding where to eat for dinner, especially if a restaurant's health violations are taken into account. Judging by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health's records, nearly every Philly restaurant — from acclaimed eateries like Parc to rowdier outposts like Iztaccihuatl — has a variety of health and safety concerns.

Mouse droppings appear to be the main offender, afflicting restaurants such as Itza, Banana Leaf, La Fontana, The Farmacy and Sabrina’s. For other restaurants, popular violations include ineffective hair restraints and inadequate temperature of refrigeration.

Iztaccihuatl is one of the many restaurants in Philadelphia that has been fined for mouse droppings. (Associate Photo Editor Olly Liu)

Health inspection reports can be difficult for average Americans to navigate and the Philadelphia Department of Public Health does not make the task any easier. Unlike other cities, Philadelphia does not make health standards clear to consumers, and non-governmental reviews of the data is hardly consistent. A DP investigation of the health violations of nine restaurants popular with Penn students — The Farmacy, La Fontana Della Citta, Dim Sum Garden, Iztaccihuatl, Banana Leaf, Sitar, Sabrina’s, La Viola, La Viola West and The Plough & the Stars — found a system without navigable guidelines, no basis for reasonable comparison between restaurants and unreliable oversight.

The Farmacy, off Spruce and 44th, has received ratings ranging from an A to an F. (Associate Photo Editor Olly Liu)

Overtasked and under-resourced:

Inspections of Philly’s more than 10,000 food establishments are carried out by a 31-person staff of inspectors and an undisclosed amount of supervisors, according to the Department of Public Health Director of Communications Jeff Moran.

A Philadelphia Inquirer article from Jan. 2015 pinned the number of supervisors at ten, the current number could not be confirmed.

The Health Department will ideally inspect every food establishment — including restaurants, school and hospital cafeterias and movie theaters — at least once a year. Moran said this number varies since some establishments receive visits from inspectors more frequently, due to follow-ups after violations, and some establishments receive them less frequently.

“You will never pass 100 percent. No restaurant ever does. You are going to find one small violation,” said John Lewis, the general manager of Iztaccihuatl, a popular South Philadelphia Mexican restaurant.

Journalists who have studied the health ratings system agree that the system can often be weighted against the restaurants.

“It is impossible to pass an inspection by getting no violations,” said Ryan Briggs, a journalist who has reported on health violations for City Paper, a former alternative weekly newspaper, and compiled a user-friendly database of ratings citywide.

“It is designed so that if the city wants to give you trouble, they can do it,” he added.

Each restaurant gets an inspection and a re-inspection for free each year. They are usually given 30 days to correct the violation, but if they fail the re-inspection, the restaurant is charged $315 for each subsequent visit. After the third failed inspection the case is referred to the legal department where the government can then take the establishment owners to court over the sanitation issues.

“When we go into an establishment, what we see is what we write,” health inspector Jayatirtha Holavanahhlli said. “If I see a roach going across the front table where a guy is working, we will shut them down.”

While the Health Department does have the authority to halt operations or pursue legal action due to unsanitary conditions, Moran said those situations are very rare since in most of these cases the restaurants will close voluntarily.

“When you look at restaurants that are doing a very good job," Briggs said, "they are still getting violations every single time." 

Varied reports, unhelpful data:

Sitar has received 54 violations from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health over the last five years. (Associate Photo Editor Olly Liu)

All health inspection reports in Philadelphia are accessible to the public on the city’s Office of Food Protection website. Health violations are categorized as risk-based or good retail practices. If a food establishment receives a risk-based violation — something that could lead to a disease — they fail the inspection. Restaurants are written up for violating good retail practices — a less serious infraction — but do not necessarily receive a re-inspection. 

Good hygiene practices are a risk-based regulation, so it may seem like La Fontana Della Citta is unsanitary since they received a violation last year for kitchen employees not wearing proper hair restraints. However, Parc, a critically acclaimed restaurant in Rittenhouse Square, received the same violation last year. Instances like this can make it very difficult for consumers to decipher between serious and common violations.

“The way the city does it now is probably deliberately hard to interpret,” Briggs said. “Regardless of how effective [the health inspections are], it wasn’t easy for the average person to process.”

To help patrons make sense of these reports, outside organizations, such as Philadelphia City Paper, the website Tisk and an app called What the Health, have been developed to interpret what the inspection reports mean in layman’s terms. The sites assign points to each violation and determine the number of stars or letter grade the restaurant will receive based on how high or low they score on their inspections.

“The core information itself is ambiguous so, therefore, you are going to reach different conclusions analyzing ambiguous data,” Briggs said. “You are trying to decipher the city’s own ambiguous rubric for judging these restaurants.”

Even though some of these tools were created with the help of food-safety consultants, it is hard to ascertain the credibility of these resources considering they are compiled anonymously and they all contradict. While The Farmacy, a restaurant on Spruce Street near 44th received a four star rating (out of five) from City Paper and an A on Tisk, the restaurant got an F on What the Health. Similarly, Sabrina’s, a popular brunch spot on Powelton near 34th, got an A on What the Health and a B on Tisk, but received a poor review from City Paper which gave the restaurant only two stars. 

The greatest disparity can be seen with Dim Sum Garden which got a C on What the Health, an A on Tisk and 3 stars from City Paper. These contradictions leave consumers with no reliable rating to trust.

No easy access:

If the violations as listed online weren't confusing enough, clarifying any discrepancies between ratings is even more difficult.

During the DP's two-week investigation, no investigator or health department official was readily available for comment.

Of the seven inspectors responsible for reviewing the nine restaurants chosen by the DP, only one, Jayatirtha Holavanahhlli, agreed to an interview. Another inspector, Wale Davis, received seven calls over the course of three days, but his office staff said he was either unavailable to speak or asked to delay the interview until another time.

After reaching Davis’ office, Director of Environmental Health Services Palak Raval-Nelson directed comment to Moran.

Sitar has received 54 violations from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health over the last five years. (Associate Photo Editor Olly Liu)He refused to be recorded when reached by phone and asked that all interview questions be sent by email. He also said all the information asked for was on the Office of Public Health website.Aside from the database of inspection reports, there are four sources of information on the Office of Public Health website: a guide to health inspection reports, which explains the risk-based and good retail practices violations but never ranks the severity of violations, a two-page information document that summarizes the guide, three Frequently Asked Questions of which only one is targeted towards consumers — a question about food poisoning — and a 149-page legal document that explains every violation in detail, but again, does not rank which violations are more serious than others.

This lack of consumer transparency in Philadelphia has been easily resolved in other cities where the Health Department rates restaurants themselves with easily understood designations.

Other cities’ solutions:

New York City and Los Angeles use the letter grading system of A through C and require restaurants to display their rating so it is visible to patrons. In New Jersey, restaurants are rated as satisfactory or conditionally satisfactory based on their health inspection report. Toronto requires food establishments to place a red, yellow or green plaque outside their door to alert customers regarding their sanitation status.

These measures ensure that consumers understand which restaurants are sanitary and how sanitary they are. Those dining in Philadelphia don’t have the same luxury.

When asked what violations consumers should be wary of, Holavanahhlli said, “It is up to the patrons to decide.”