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County to consider new food-safety proposal

Restaurants would be required to post full health inspection results on site and online

Santa Clara County could soon require more transparency when it comes to restaurants' food safety under a new proposal to be considered by the Board of Supervisors Tuesday morning.

The proposal, supported by county Supervisor Joe Simitian, asks that all restaurants publicly post color-coded placards indicating their inspection levels – green for pass, yellow for conditional pass or red for fail/closed. In order to pass, restaurants cannot have more than one major violation ("major" defined as any violation that poses an imminent health hazard). An establishment with two or more violations would receive the yellow "conditional pass" placard.

Restaurants that fail to correct violations upon inspection get slapped with the red card and are closed until they comply. The county does currently post restaurants whose permits have been suspended, along with the reason for the suspension and dates they closed and reopened. An online database is also searchable by restaurant and posts the most recent inspection report.

The proposal would also require that complete inspection results – including all violations -- be posted on the Department of Environmental Health website, along with an "easy-to-understand" online score for these results (from 1 to 100).

"Right now, when you walk into a restaurant, about all you know for sure from a health and safety standpoint is that it hasn't been bad enough to get closed down," Simitian said in a statement. "And if nobody knows you're 'just barely good enough,' then there's no real incentive to do better."

The statement also calls food-borne illness a "major public health issue," citing a Disease Control and Prevention estimate that each year, roughly one in six Americans (or more than 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases.

"This is pretty straightforward," Simitian said. "If the results of our health inspections are readily available, then local restaurants have an added incentive to improve food safety, and local consumers have the information they need to make informed choices."

Simitian has long advocated for increased public access to restaurant-inspection information. While serving as supervisor in 2000, the board did approve a previous proposal he put forth to post health-inspection results online, but it was never actually implemented.

"In fact, when I returned to the Board in 2013, I discovered that we'd actually gone backwards in terms of our online disclosure efforts," he said. "I'm glad we're finally poised to make progress, even if it's coming 13 years later."

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