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Looking under the grill 

Good news for diners: restaurant health inspection reports will soon be posted online.

Restaurant-goers in Nova Scotia are to get another weapon in the arsenal of their decision-making toolboxes. The province will begin posting restaurant health inspections online, starting next month.

Nova Scotia agriculture minister Brooke Taylor made the announcement in May, joining a movement towards full disclosure that began in Toronto and is slowly making its way across the country (New Brunswick has such a system; Alberta, Saskatchewan and PEI have plans to do the same).

It seems like an idea whose time has come; this information has always been available---sort of. In order to view a report currently, diners must file a request under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, a process that takes far longer than it should and quells one's appetite.

But not everybody is overjoyed at the thought of having their laundry, dirty and otherwise, aired so easily. When the announcement was first made, the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia was quick to object. Issues such as a blanket colour-coded system, outdated information and reports not being posted in a timely fashion, however, appear to have been addressed following a meeting with RANS board members and Mike Horwich, the provincial manager of food safety.

Details have yet to be worked out, but here's what we know so far: Every restaurant will start with a clean slate---no prior reports will be online. Each restaurant's history will be erased following a complete change of ownership; the most recent report will be the first entry, making it easy for the user to see the current status; the green-yellow-red light system will not be used (which is good news for restaurateurs, since experience with other provinces who use this oversimplified system prove it to be, at times, misleading and unnecessarily harmful to a restaurant's reputation). Instead, the province will post the full report and let patrons draw their own conclusions.

But diners need to be careful when making decisions based solely on reports since some may not fully understand the health consequences. A passing report may give a false sense of security: Just because a kitchen has proper hand-washing stations and working thermometers in fridges and freezers doesn't mean those things are being used correctly. I worked in a fine dining place with a spotless record. But the chef smoked and flicked his ashes into the grill while cooking.

Also, it's important to understand violations in context. Restaurants in Nova Scotia can be cited for not storing food a minimum height above floor level (for example to prevent infestation and to allow proper cleaning of the floor). But a restaurant that doesn't happen to have its frozen goods stored above floor level in the walk-in freezer is unlikely to cause an outbreak of salmonella. That's a pretty basic example, but you get the idea.

And there's a concern about how health inspectors are going to keep up, now that their reports are to be scrutinized by the public. There's no way of knowing yet how well this system will work, what kind of impact it will have on restaurants and how it will affect diners' choices about where to eat. The system may be up and running in August, but I'd predict it will take a few months to be fully functional, with all the bugs worked out.

I'll be watching this initiative intently. Knowledge is power and when you already put your health in someone else's hands every time you eat out, full disclosure is a good thing.

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