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Chicago Health Department Doesn't Conduct Nearly Enough Restaurant Inspections: Report

Audit recommends that the city needs to hire many more food inspectors

Chicago food inspectors have work to do.
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

A new report suggests that the Chicago’s health department doesn’t employ enough workers to inspect the city’s restaurants with the frequency the law requires. The report claims in 2015 that less than half of "high risk" restaurants received their mandated second yearly inspections from the Chicago Department of Public Health. The audit, released Monday by the Chicago Office of the Inspector General, concluded the city should hire 56 more employees to better comply with laws.

Restaurant owners have a love-hate relationship with the CDPH, and it’s too early to see how the report will affect them and consumers. The OIG compiled their report from data from 2015. Among their findings, they reported that 43.9 percent of the 8,123 restaurants that the CPDH deemed as "high risk" received their required second yearly visit. The OIG blames understaffing for the deficiencies. Right now, the city employs 38 inspectors, according to Crain’s. The audit suggested the city needs at least 94. Chicago and Illinois aren’t fiscally stable, so where would the money come from for the new hires? The OIG suggested securing funds though grants.

Inspector General Joseph Ferguson told Crain’s that the results were "troubling." He also said that restaurants should cover more of the inspection costs. If a restaurant fails an inspection, owners pay $50 for the re-inspection, though the inspections cost the city about $100.

Many restaurant owners have long argued that inspections need to be better organized so they could better follow regulations. The audit seemed to agree with that, suggesting that the state and city health departments needed to collaborate to create a permanent health inspection schedule. That’s something city officials consented to do, according to the audit, though they didn’t state when a schedule would be established.

Even if the Chicago officials were compliant with the city’s own regulations, they’d still trail the standards set in other larger cities. For example, New York requires restaurant inspections every five months, Crain’s noted. The audit’s results don’t mean restaurants are unsafe. The same report reminded the public that "there is no scientific consensus regarding the relationship between the frequency of food establishment inspections and the prevalence of foodborne illness."

It’s not all negative news, as the audit also concluded inspectors reacted in a timely manner to complaints. They also properly and accurately report results using the city’s data portal.