Restaurant inspection grades suppressed
Environmental health officials have refused to reveal the health and safety “grades” given to every restaurant in Bermuda.
The information was requested by The Royal Gazette under the Public Access to Information Act but the Department of Health’s information officer denied our application after consultation with Susan Hill Davidson, the acting Chief Environmental Health Officer, on four grounds.
This newspaper sought the information in order to publish a list of all restaurants and their most recent grades, similar to the inspection lookup tool offered by NYC Health.
The New York version enables members of the public to search a database and retrieve health inspection results for each of New York City’s 24,000 restaurants before deciding where to eat.
In Bermuda, it is estimated there are between 150 and 200 food and beverage premises.
The Department of Health said in its refusal letter that to comply with our request would, “by reason of the nature of the records requested, require the retrieval and examination of such records [and] cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with or disruption of the other work of the public authority”.
Information officer Verlina Bishop wrote that complying with the request would require pulling the inspection records of each individual file of food and drink establishments.
“The files are maintained by street address and are not filed according to food and beverage establishments,” she said. “The environmental health section of the Department of Health does not have the manpower to review and compile the records requested.”
Other reasons given for the refusal to disclose information were that the records contained personal, commercial and confidential information, exempt from disclosure.
The Pati Act lists a series of exemptions which allow public authorities to refuse to grant a request, including on administrative grounds. But public authorities can only rely on that exemption, where retrieval of the records would be too onerous, if they have offered to help the requester amend their request. No such offer was made in this case.
An exemption can apply where personal information is involved, though the Act says personal information does not include any information relating to any “discretionary benefit of a financial nature, including the granting of a licence or permit, conferred on an individual by a public authority, including the name of the individual and the exact nature of the benefit”.
Restaurants in Bermuda are licensed by the environmental health section of the Department of Health, based on inspections carried out by officers to check for hygienic conditions and operations.
They monitor food and beverage importation, storage, preparation and sale and they ensure food is fit for human consumption by sampling milk, frozen desserts, other foods and drinks, and inspecting locally slaughtered meat.
The Pati legislation includes an exemption for commercial information and states records can be withheld where disclosure “would have, or could reasonably expect to have, an adverse effect on the commercial interests of any person to whom the record relates”.
The exemption for information received in confidence states that “a record shall be disclosed if disclosure is in the public interest”.
Ms Bishop wrote: “The records requested pertain to the business of food and beverage establishments, which are private businesses.
The information gathered is for regulatory and compliance purposes and [it] does not serve the public interest to disclose to an unrelated third party.”
She said a restaurant’s grading was not always recorded on an inspection report as it was an internal tool, used for an incentive initiative called the Mayor’s Awards, some time ago.
“The Mayor’s Awards have not been held in several years,” Ms Bishop wrote. “The grading is not something that is publicised and there is no policy or law requiring notifying the public of a grading.”
She said an inspection report was a tool for environmental officers to use to determine if restaurants were complying with health and safety standards and whether improvements were needed.
“It is a snapshot, reflective on the day the inspector makes the inspection,” Ms Bishop added.
“If corrective action is required, the inspector will notify the establishment in writing regarding improvements required. Following a site inspection, the inspectors do not give a grade externally.
“A record is maintained of the number of food premises inspected, not a compiled record of the grades recorded on the inspection reports.”
In New York, the health department conducts unannounced annual inspections of restaurants and each violation of a regulation gets a certain number of points.
According to NYC Health’s website, “at the end of the inspection, the inspector totals the points, and this number is the restaurant’s inspection score — the lower the score, the better the grade”.
Sharing the restaurant-grading system with the public has not been without controversy, with critics claiming it is unfair on businesses.
But Michael Bloomberg said in 2013, when he was mayor, that it had helped drive down salmonella cases.
This newspaper intends to appeal the decision of the information officer to the head of the authority, as is the right of any requester.