Unresolved Detroit Restaurant Health Code Violations and Other Findings

In March of 2019, the City of Detroit’s Health Department released extensive data concerning health inspections in restaurants and other food establishments. Information can be found on specific establishments, including individual violation reports and summaries, dating back to 2016. We explored inspection standards across different inspectors in an April blog post, but the sheer volume of information allows for further analysis.

Unresolved, but Corrected?

Inspectors can give out three types of violations: core, foundation, and priority. This post will only focus on priority violations, which are violations that can directly lead to foodborne poisoning and illnesses. Examples of this are improper handling of raw food, inadequate employee hand washing, or failing to sanitize utensils before use.

Due to the safety threat of priority violations, restaurants are required to correct the violation within thirty days of the inspection. Often, these violations are corrected before the initial inspector leaves, but it is also common for a follow-up inspection to take place within a few months. In the data released by the Health Department, though, 709 priority violations since 2016 were never marked as corrected. Of these, only 8.6% (61) were committed by restaurants that are now permanently closed.

In the 648 remaining uncorrected violations, some common trends emerged:

  • 6% (231) were violations related to the plumbing, water supply system, and/or sewage system of the establishment
  • 4% (58) were violations due to either hot food being stored below 135˚F, or cold food being stored above 41˚F
  • 5% (43) were violations due to inadequate hand washing.

At first glance, it’s stunning to see that so many of these serious violations have not been marked as “corrected”. What does this mean? The Health Department data seems to have discrepancies on the issue.

“Corrected”, as a term, is complicated in this context, as some violations are more liable to be corrected than others. Priority violations due to employee conduct (such as hand washing) may never be able to be truly “corrected”; after all, any employee could fail to wash their hands at any time despite the restaurant’s best intentions. One of the 709 “uncorrected” violations was issued for an employee failing to wash their hands for twenty seconds with warm water and soap. Given that this violation was likely issued due to the inspector being in the right place at the right time, how many other institutions could have been cited for this error with the same timing? When should a restaurant be considered to have not corrected a violation of this type?

An additional concern is that a future inspection may fail to issue a violation for a previously “uncorrected” problem. To illustrate, one institution was cited consecutive times for failing to provide an adequate air gap between a water supply inlet and a flood level rim –a priority violation that was never marked as corrected in either instance. Future inspections did not cite this error again, and due to the mechanical nature of the error, a permanent solution was likely put into place. Could this error be considered corrected, due to the permanence of the solution? If so, the previous violations should be marked as corrected.

Keeping these nuances in mind, it is still interesting to see if restaurants were cited on consecutive visits for the same violation. To do this, data was isolated to unresolved violations based on their identification code, and then filtered for institutions that had been cited in consecutive visits for the same violation. Twenty-two establishments out of 2,199 inspected recorded consecutive priority violations that were not corrected –this number has too many nuances to be practical due to confusing methods of confirming violation corrections, as explained above. Hence, an area for the Detroit Health Department to improve upon is correctly classifying and updating violation corrections; both to clear now-complying restaurants and to hold repeat offenders accountable.