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Up to code? An algorithm is helping Chicago health officials predict restaurant safety violations

February 12, 2016 at 5:53 PM EDT
In Chicago, the Department of Public Health has partnered with the city's data team to improve restaurant inspections by using analytics and social media to predict and detect which establishments are more likely to have potential food safety violations. NewsHour's Megan Thompson reports as part of the series, Urban Ideas.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Mark Chmielewski is the Executive Chef at Latinicity, a hip new eatery in downtown Chicago. At this sit-down restaurant, bar, and at 10 food counters customers can watch their sushi being rolled, burgers flipped, and burritos wrapped.

But what they don’t see are the steps behind the scenes that ensure the safety of their food.

MARK CHMIELEWSKI: All stations have hand sinks. Probably the most biggest thing is washing your hands. All the fish gets iced down.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Chmielewski oversees systems and procedures to ensure that all the food served here is fresh.

MARK CHMIELEWSKI: Everything up off the ground. Up off the floor.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Temperature is key. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends hot food is served at at least 140 degrees. Cold food must be refrigerated 40 degrees and below. And dirty dishes must be washed in hot water close to boiling.

MARK CHMIELEWSKI: It’s paramount, to have, you know, great food safety with a lot of different systems in place to prevent the public and your staff from becoming sick from foodborne illness. That can be devastating. It can shut you down. Fast.

MEGAN THOMPSON: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every year about 48 million people in the U.S. get sick from foodborne illness…from all sources of contaminated food. 128-Thousand are hospitalized – and 3-thousand die.

JULIE MORITA: I think food safety is one of the core public health issues that we face.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Julie Morita is a doctor and Chicago’s Commissioner of Public Health. Her department is in charge of inspecting all 16,500 establishments that serve food in Chicago. Close to 7-thousand are classified as “high risk” – those where chefs handle raw ingredients and are thus more at risk of foodborne illness outbreaks.

JULIE MORITA: If we don’t address and make sure that our food is safe, we will be constantly be dealing with outbreaks and challenges related to that, and so it’s really in our best interest to insure the safety of food so that we can do and focus on other areas that are important to public health as well.

MEGAN THOMPSON: I followed one food inspector — Annette Grimes – as she made an unannounced visit to a restaurant on Chicago’s South Side.

ANNETTE GRIMES: Did you vacuum pack this, and where’s the machine?  Because you’re not allowed to vacuum pack.  

MEGAN THOMPSON: Records for all shellfish must be kept.

ANNETTE GRIMES: How about tags for the oysters?

MEGAN THOMPSON: She even probes for clutter in the basement.

MEGAN THOMPSON: The state requires Chicago to inspect high-risk venues like this restaurant at least once a year. But Chicago has had a difficult time keeping up. A 2012 review by the state found the city to be out of compliance with state inspection requirements. According to Morita, they’re working to get back on track.

JULIE MORITA: The city has taken this very seriously, and so we’ve done some very creative and innovative things recently.

MEGAN THOMPSON: The Public Health Department hired more inspectors. Today there are 35. But that’s still only one inspector for nearly every 200 high-risk restaurants. So the city turned to data analytics. Tom Schenk leads a team of coders and data scientists who created an algorithm to predict which restaurants are more likely to have the most serious types of violations.

TOM SCHENK: This is an opportunity for analytics to come in and say, can we do this a little bit better?

MEGAN THOMPSON: This is how it works. The program crunches 12 variables based on publicly-available information. Things that seem obvious, like a restaurant’s previous violations, the length of time since the last inspection, how long it’s been operating, or nearby garbage complaints. And, the not-so-obvious, like the 3-day average high temperature, nearby burglaries, and whether the place is licensed to sell tobacco. Smoking is not allowed in restaurants.

TOM SCHENCK: What we found is places with tobacco license were less likely to have these sanitation violations, which essentially probably means that they’re maintaining those high levels to make sure that they protect these licenses that are also very valuable to them.

MEGAN THOMPSON: The number of burglaries in an area, what does that have to do with food safety?

TOM SCHENK: What we found was areas that have property crime around it, were more likely to have sanitation violations.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Explain to me how the weather has anything to do with whether or not a restaurant might violate a food safety regulation?

TOM SCHENCK: One of things that matters the most around having food violations is whether or not you’re able to maintain the temperature of your food.  And so when the temperature goes up, sometimes it’s harder to keep those things chilled or cooled.  And what this algorithm essentially does, is it takes this data, these different observations that we have, and essentially weights them in terms of important and how much weight and importance each one of these variables have to predict whether or not there’s a critical violation at a restaurant.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Schenk’s team tested their program in 2014 and discovered the rate of finding violations increased by 25 percent. That meant, inspectors found violations about seven days earlier than before – a week less of potential exposure for customers based on the algorithm, Chicago’s Director of Food Protection Gerrin Cheek Butler assigns the inspectors – also called Sanitarians – to restaurants they must visit.

GERRIN CHEEK BUTLER: The higher the coefficient the more likely there are to be critical and serious violations found at the inspection. So these are the ones that we would assign for inspection first. It updates continuously, so it’s always updating.

GERRIN CHEEK BUTLER: So this has definitely helped us prioritize our inspections, put our sanitarians where they need to be. And so what we have found is that in the beginning of the year, we are finding that we have more critical and serious violations in the first quarter.

MEGAN THOMPSON: That allows restaurants to correct problems early in the year.

ANNETTE GRIMES: This is your inspection report.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Places like the restaurant on the South Side, which failed its random inspection. Inspector Annette Grimes found violations with the dishwasher ….

ANNETTE GRIMES: We need to go to the three compartment sink to wash, rinse and sanitize. You can’t use this until we get it fixed.

MEGAN THOMPSON: And temperatures of some foods.

ANNETTE GRIMES: It’s only 118.

MEGAN THOMPSON: The owners were fined.

ANNETTE GRIMES: It has to be 140 or above.  So all of that has been discarded and you’re being issued a critical citation for having those products.

MEGAN THOMPSON: The managers have one week to make necessary changes or face the possibility of more fines and inspections.

RESTAURANT OWNER: We’ll make sure everything is taken care of as soon as possible.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Chicago restaurants are required to post their inspection report somewhere publicly, but it’s not like New York and Los Angeles, where restaurants get letter grades that are posted right in the front window.  

Chicago does make the inspection results public online…posting them on the web in a database searchable by restaurant name.  In addition, the city has launched the app Open Grid where residents can find public information including restaurant inspection results.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Chicago is sharing the code behind its algorithm so other municipalities can use it. Montgomery County, Maryland, was the first to try it out. In a test, it found violations three days earlier than before.  

Besides the algorithm, the Department of Health also responds to complaints about restaurants. Most come through the city’s 3-1-1 system….Or Twitter. A program called Foodborne Chicago mines Twitter for messages about food poisoning…and often responds.

GERRIN CHEEK BUTLER: So she’s saying, “Food poisoning is not my favorite.”  And then we responded from Foodborne Chicago and we say– “Sorry to hear that you were ill. The Chicago Health Department can help.”  And then we give them the link.   

MEGAN THOMPSON: The link is to an online form asks users for more information about what happened.  If the tweet checks out, the Department of Health sends an inspector. Of the nearly 4-thousand tweets reviewed in the last few years, about 600 generated an inspection.  

At Latinicity – which passed its last inspection with only a few minor things to fix like a leaky sink – Executive Chef Mark Chmielewski welcomes Chicago’s use of the new algorithm. But he hopes restaurant goers check the city’s inspection reports rather than believing unverified complaints on social media.

MARK CHMIELEWSKI: That’s a slippery slope.  Twitter and social media, they– wield a very mighty sword– and if someone, they just– “I had bad sushi at, you know, ABC place.”  Is it really from there, or was it– from something that they had the– for breakfast. They could do a lot of damage to somebody if it’s incorrect.

MEGAN THOMPSON: As for the restaurant on the South Side – during the follow-up inspection this past week, inspector Annette Grimes found all violations corrected, and the restaurant passed.