the massachusetts sanitary code requires municipalities to check restaurants for health code violations twice a year, but the city of Boston often is doing the inspections less frequently, in some cases as little as once in two years.

“We don’t have the resources to do every place twice a year,” says Charles Cook, assistant commissioner of the health division of Boston’s Inspectional Services Depart­ment (ISD). “So we do it based on what is called a risk-based inspection schedule. We have urgent, high, medium, and low risk. The higher the risk [to the public health], the more inspections they get.”

State officials say municipalities can adopt a risk-based inspection schedule instead of the standard twice-a-year approach, but they have to first seek permission from the Department of Public Health, which Boston failed to do. Cook says he will ask for the state’s approval.

ISD inspections, which are unannounced, can trigger three categories of health code violations: non-critical, critical, and critical foodborne. Left unchecked, both non-critical and critical violations can lead to critical foodborne violations, which can directly cause illness. An example of a non-critical violation is the failure to label food containers, while the presence of dirty food surfaces is deemed a critical violation. An example of a critical foodborne violation is storing raw food alongside cooked food, which can lead to bacteria in the raw food contaminating the cooked food.

Some restaurants in Boston aren’t being inspected at all for more than a year at a time. For example, the Island Creek Oyster Bar and Deuxave on Commonwealth Avenue, both categorized as medium–risk, were never inspected last year. Cook blamed “administrative error” and ordered inspections after learning of the lapse.

The inspection of the Island Creek Oyster Bar in February turned up 18 health code violations, one of them critical and five of them critical foodborne. At Deuxave, the restaurant was cited for seven violations, one of which was critical foodborne.

Island Creek and Deuxave weren’t the only restaurants that weren’t inspected for more than a year. For example, Smith & Wollensky, Lala Rokh, and Mare, all medium risk, were never inspected in 2011, and Locke-Ober, Mistral, Sorellina, and O Ya, all medium risk as well, were never inspected in both 2011 and 2010.

Restaurants cited for sanitary violations are supposed to be reinspected to make sure the problems are corrected, but that doesn’t always happen. For instance, Express Coffee, Pigalle, Prezza, and Casa Romero (all considered medium-risk restaurants) were cited for violations in March or April of 2011. Not until 2012, after inquiries from Common­Wealth, did they get reinspected. Pigalle, Prezza, and Casa Romero passed, but Express Coffee was cited for another 13 health code violations, three of which were of the critical fooborne type.

As of June 9, for the previous 60-day period, only three Boston restaurants failed their inspections and were temporarily shut down. When asked for a copy of the criteria for failing a restaurant or for the lesser sanction of reinspection required, Cook says there is no written policy, adding, “[It] depends on type and number of violations.”

During a March 6 inspection, the Cheers restaurant at Faneuil Hall Marketplace was cited for 39 health code violations, two of them critical and eight of them critical foodborne. Yet the medium-risk restaurant “where everybody knows your name” was allowed to stay open and instead only a reinspection was required.

“Cheers [was not suspended] because critical violations were able to be taken care of at the time of the inspection by the person in charge,” Cook says. But records indicate a reinspection on March 26—20 days later—uncovered 13 violations, some of which were new. Not until another reinspection on April 2—almost a month after the initial inspection—were all the violations corrected.

The same scenario played out at Mamma Maria. On May 3, the North End medium-risk eatery was cited for 24 health code violations, two of them critical and five of them critical foodborne. Yet Mamma Maria was allowed to stay open as well. When the inspector returned four days later for a reinspection, only four of the 24 violations had been corrected. And when the inspector returned two weeks later, two violations still had not been corrected. At press time, a third reinspection was pending.

Some Boston restaurants are being cited over and over for the same critical health code violations. The Barking Crab, a restaurant in the urgent category, was cited during an April inspection for having dirty food surfaces, a critical violation. The restaurant was cited for the same infraction four times before in 2011 and twice in 2010.

At one of The Barking Crab’s inspections last year, the in­spector wrote, “There is peeling paint on the counters, door frames, walls.?This peeling of paint may not be part of the decor.” One year earlier, the inspector’s report said the same exact thing.

The Barking Crab has had seven ISD inspections since 2010, all of them requiring reinspection. Since 2010, the restaurant has been cited for 57 health code violations—11 of them critical and nine of them critical foodborne, with many of them being repeat violations.

“We maintain a close working relationship with the city of Boston and take all requests for compliance very seriously,” says Robert Webb, The Barking Crab’s director of operations, in a statement issued on March 16. Just a month later the restaurant was cited for nine health code violations, including three critical foodborne.

Cook, the assistant commissioner of ISD’s health division, says it’s not difficult for restaurants to understand what needs to be done in order to comply with ISD health code requirements. But he’s stumped why so many restaurants do a poor job of complying with those requirements. “I can’t read their minds,” he says.

Of the 2,922 food service establishments (including mobile trucks) in Boston, there are none in the low-risk category, 2,784 in the medium-risk category, 31 in the high-risk category, and 107 in the urgent category.

The higher the risk, the more times a restaurant is supposed to be inspected. But that’s not always the case. For example, AFC Sushi at Simmons College required two reinspections in 2011 and one in 2010, but the restaurant is in the medium-risk category, while AFC Sushi at UMass Boston has passed its last five inspections since 2010, yet it is listed in the urgent category.

“There needs to be better monitoring and accountability systems in place and we are working on getting them implemented,” Cook says.

Homepage photo by Christopher Peplin and published under a Creative Commons license.