In the last three years, one third of San Diego County restaurants have had at least one major food safety violation, according to an inewsource analysis of publicly available inspection data.
San Diego County is home to nearly 16,000 retail food facilities, from restaurants and caterers to schools and vending machines and boats. (Yes, boats.) The county’s Department of Environmental Health and Quality’s Food and Housing Division is responsible for ensuring food handlers are properly trained and that facilities meet standards set by state and local food safety laws.
So each year, county employees known as Registered Environmental Health Specialists perform thousands of inspections. From January 2, 2020 to January 10, 2023, the department conducted about 50,000 routine inspections – defined as “a site visit that is comprehensive in nature and generally results in the scoring of the food facility.” The county also conducted more than 13,000 “‘re-inspections”’ to verify that previous violations had been remedied, along with more than 4,000 inspections conducted following complaints, including complaints about foodborne illness.
The county has more than 8,000 restaurants. During a routine inspection, each restaurant starts with 100 points. A minor food safety violation costs a restaurant two points, and a major violation costs four. Based on their final score, restaurants receive either an A, B or C grade. C is considered failing, but it’s rare: Only 14 Cs were given in the past three years. It’s more common for a restaurant to be ordered closed by the department until it can rectify its food safety risks. That occurred more than 400 times.
Achieving an “A” score doesn’t mean a facility is flawless – it could still have several violations and still get that rating. Nearly 94% of routine restaurant inspections resulted in a score above 90 — an A grade — and about 15% resulted in a perfect score. The Oumi Sushi stand inside a Sprouts grocery store in San Marcos, for instance, was inspected five times between September 2020 and December 2022 without a single issue cited.
On the other end of the spectrum, inspectors can find more than a dozen violations in a single visit, ranging from relatively minor permit issues to major problems — such as vermin or sewage backups — that can lead the Department of Environmental Health and Quality to close a facility until they are remedied. Across all the county facilities, issues relating to holding temperatures were the most commonly cited by inspectors. Vermin was the second most common major violation.
In September 2021, an inspector gave Sushi on the Edge a ‘C’ rating when it cited the Vista restaurant for 19 violations — including issues related to plumbing, garbage and refuse, storage of toxic substances and vermin. In October 2021, an inspector cited 19 violations at Junction Bar & Grill in El Cajon, including a major violation related to vermin. The restaurant was ordered closed and approved to reopen a few days later.
Both restaurants have each received three A grades since those 2021 inspections. Neither responded to our requests for comment.
The Department of Environmental Health and Quality has a publicly available map of all the food facilities in the county, but we wanted to make it easier and quicker for members of the public to see which restaurants have been cited the most for health and safety violations. So we made our own map, using data captured from the county in January, and you can search for specific restaurants, zip codes in the database above.
“Food safety is an important public policy issue and inewsource wanted to use our resources to make it easy for the public to review this critical information,” said Managing Editor Mark J. Rochester. “The data is technically available on the county’s website, but not in a very user-friendly fashion. We wanted to present it in a manner that makes it easily searchable and not difficult to understand.”
During the last nine years, about 77% of foodborne diseases investigated by the California Health & Human Services Agency involved food prepared at restaurants, according to the agency. That was consistent with national data showing that restaurants are the most commonly reported locations of food preparation associated with foodborne disease outbreaks.
It’s important to note that new restaurants opened in the last few years may have had fewer inspections, and possibly fewer violations as a result. It’s also possible that violations listed for a restaurant on the map or in the searchable database were cited by an inspector early in 2020 and the restaurant has since received relatively few — violations listed may have occurred early in 2020, or as recently as Jan. 10, 2023. To look up a detailed history of a specific food facility, visit the county’s food information site.
“A consumer can look at the last inspection report, see what violations were observed by our staff during their recent inspections and make the decisions for themselves if they would still like to eat there,” said Ryan Johnson, who heads operations for the department’s Food and Housing Division. “It lets the consumer make an educated decision on where they ought to eat.”
But it’s difficult to use this data to compare San Diego’s overall restaurant safety record to those of other cities, said Joetta DeFrancesco, a food safety expert for the National Environmental Health Association. She said different places may rely on different food safety standards. “If they were using the same system, then you could make that comparison, but otherwise it’s like apples and oranges,” she said.
For people looking to find a safe place to eat, DeFrancesco said it’s important to realize that mistakes in food preparation happen all the time, and inspections only capture food facilities at a specific moment in time.
So she offered some practical advice: “Does it look clean? Does it smell clean? Pay attention to what you’re seeing and follow your instincts, because usually, they’re right.”
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