Editor's Note: Although this article focuses on Ohio (particularly the Columbus area), the phenomenon of municipal, county, and state health authorities making food safety data available to the public is a growing trend. In addition, many public health agencies are using social media to solicit food poisoning information from and disseminate food safety information to the public. For example, see this recent article on the Chicago Health Authority's use of Twitter to find out about restaurants that may have food safety problems.

Source: Columbus Dispatch

More central Ohioans who are heading out to eat at a restaurant, food truck, festival or fair — or to shop at a supermarket — can now go online to check the latest food-safety inspections.

This month, the Delaware General Health District became the latest local public-health entity in the region to post its inspections on its website, joining health departments in Columbus and in Franklin and Union counties.

And the Ohio Department of Health is launching a system that should put inspections for about 20 more local health departments, including Pickaway County’s, online within several months.There’s plenty of interest in such data.

Columbus Public Health said it logged more than 90,000 inspection searches last year. The Franklin County Board of Health said its public food-safety inspection website had more than 1,800 hits in the first seven months of this year. In Licking and Fairfield counties, food-safety inspections are published in local newspapers.

The data give the public a window into the work that’s done by the full-time equivalent of more than 50 inspectors and support-staff members to keep the local food supply safe. A Dispatch survey found that health departments in Franklin and neighboring counties issue more than 11,500 food licenses annually and conduct more than 30,000 inspections.

License suspensions for food-safety violations are relatively rare. In Columbus, for example, there were five such suspensions last year and three this year, out of more than 5,000 food licenses issued.

The state health department expects to spend about $1.38 million in software development, user licenses and maintenance for the first two phases of its new data project.

Food safety is the largest part in terms of licenses issued, but the project also will include data on private drinking-water wells, household sewage-treatment systems, tattoo and body-art shops, resident day-camp programs and school environmental health. A future phase could include beach monitoring and complaints about violations of the state law prohibiting smoking in public buildings.

State officials will use the data to improve training for food-license holders and will monitor whether local health departments are conducting the number of inspections required each year, said Gene Phillips, chief of the Ohio Department of Health’s environmental health bureau. The data system also should make the food-inspection process more uniform, he said. And the public should benefit from having access to more information.

“This is pretty significant,” Phillips said. “We’re moving away from paper and going more digital.”

Food-safety inspections today aren’t what they were even a few years ago. For one thing, in urban Franklin County, food is increasingly on the move.

Far more food trucks are on the streets than just a few years ago. The combined number of mobile-food licenses in Columbus and Franklin County grew from 596 in 2008 to 750 last year, with most of the growth in Franklin County.

In many cases, those mobile food purveyors are inspected more often than their bricks-and-mortar brethren, given that inspectors repeatedly cross paths with them at festivals, said Rob Acquista, a supervisor for Columbus’ food-safety program.

Temporary food licenses also have proliferated in conjunction with an increase in the number of festivals that focus on various kinds of food, said Kent Bradley, who supervises food inspectors for the Franklin County Board of Health. Some health departments analyze their inspections for patterns of violations.

The Licking County Health Department noticed that licensees’ most-common violation was the improper use of test strips to make sure dishes were clean. It logged about 125 such violations in 2012. Now, during inspections and food-safety classes, inspectors in the county emphasize the proper use of test strips, said Chad Brown, the department’s director of environmental health.

In Delaware County, the most-common violation involves not refrigerating foods at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or below, said Stephanie DeGenaro, who oversees the food-protection program.

A few decades ago, inspectors focused primarily on the cleanliness of surfaces such as floors and walls, Acquista said. Today, that focus has broadened to include teaching workers the importance of hand-washing, the dangers of bare-hand contact with food and the heating and cooling requirements.“We want to catch someone doing something right,” he said.

The consumer is far more educated, too, he said. “What you’re seeing is, the public is more and more aware of food safety.”

For more information, go to www.publichealth.columbus .gov; www.delawarehealth.org; www.myfcph.org; and www.uchd.net.