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Nov 5, 2010 9:58 PM by Ariel Wesler

Behind the Kitchen Door: Finding Health Code Violations

San Luis Obispo County says it refuses to publicly out the restaurants with recurring problems. It says the records are available for anyone who wants to look, but will not tell you where they are, saying it prefers to take a positive approach to improving restaurants.

Over the years, San Luis Obispo County health inspectors have dealt with some pretty gross violations. Some of the worst include dead rodents, dirty can openers, and mold growing on the ice machine. So, how can you protect yourself from these dining disasters?

About four years ago, the county started an online system so you can review health code violations at local restaurants. Curtis Batson has been the Environmental Heath Director in San Luis Obispo County for the last 15 years.

"If the facility is open, it meets minimum standards. It does not mean it's perfect. It does not mean it doesn't have issues that we are working on, but it is safe to eat," Batson said.

You can search for any of the restaurants by name, address, or city. Then, click on the results to see the score and read the report online. Violations numbered one through 23 are critical. The website specifically highlights the cleanest restaurants in the county, those scoring 99% and above but, why not list the dirtiest? Afterall, only about a quarter of the county qualified for the clean list.

Reporter: "Shouldn't people know restaurants where they could in fact be in danger?"

Batson: "The information, again, is available on that same website for any facility within the county."

But you have to look for it and find the trouble spots. Batson admits he doesn't know how many people actually use the site or even know about it.

"That is probably the flaw that's in our current system," Batson said.

Another flaw? The system only counts each violation once. . so a restaurant with the same recurring problem could wind up with a better score than it should. Santa Barbara County also has a website to search for restaurant reports but doesn't offer a list of cleanest facilities. If you don't want to go online, you can go into any restaurant and ask to see an inspection report.

Just a few hours to the south, Los Angeles County takes a unique approach to patrolling its restaurants. It relies on a grading system. A quick look at a window and you can tell whether a restaurant is an A, B, or even a C.

Batson says the county has considered the system a few times in the last five years but his department doesn't have the resources, especially now, to handle the extra inspections. He says borderline restaurants are always seeking higher grades.

"I prefer to get out there to see the facilities more often, rather than to come back and address the concerns of an individual who would certainly want to get an a card," Batson said.

Inspectors say restaurants scoring below 70 percent are usually shut down. With more than 160 restaurant complaints per year, inspectors are hoping the website will help you make some informed dining decisions.

Environmental Health is in the process of upgrading its website. Thanks to this story, they have already made some changes.

Originally, the county had about 75 percent of its restaurants on its list of top facilities. The county said it was a computer glitch and corrected the problem.

One other thing to keep in mind, the violations are phrased like a checklist. For example, if it says proper handwashing, that refers to the title of the violation.

The county only agreed to give us access and photos, if we didn't identify the restaurants, but we have made it easy for you to check out if your favorite Central Coast restaurants have any violations.

For San Luis Obispo County, click here. For Santa Barbara County, click here.

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