protocols, units of measurement, or formats for reporting contaminants. In 2003, an analysis of drinking water reports in nineteen cities by the National Resources Defense Council found that some cities buried or omitted information about health effects of contamination or warnings to consumers with compromised immune systems, all omitted information about specific polluters, fewer than half offered reports in languages other than English, and many made sweeping and inaccurate claims about water safety despite violations of federal contaminant levels.
As of 2006, the drinking water contaminant disclosure system appeared to be unsustainable. Reports had improved little over the years in scope, quality, or use. Interestingly, new emphasis on homeland security raised the possibility of requiring more timely monitoring (and perhaps disclosure). In 2004, experts convened by the federal Government Accountability Office ranked “near real-time monitoring technologies” to detect contaminants as the highest priority in improving drinking water security. Two years earlier, the National Academy of Sciences rated improved monitoring technologies as one of four top security priorities for drinking water supplies.
Disclosing Restaurant Hygiene to Protect Public Health
On November 16, 1997, the CBS affiliate in Los Angeles, KCBS, broadcast the first of a three-part series regarding restaurant hygiene. Using the increasingly popular “hidden camera” technique, the local news exposé took viewers behind the scenes into a number of restaurant kitchens. The series revealed a smorgasbord of unsanitary practices that – according to the series – were common in restaurants throughout Los Angeles County, despite the presence of an aggressive restaurant hygiene monitoring system maintained by the county. The anecdotal evidence in Los Angeles, however, was indicative of a more widespread problem. Food-borne diseases cause an estimated 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths each year in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that nearly 50 percent of food-borne disease outbreaks are connected to restaurants or other commercial food outlets.
The public outcry arising from the investigative series led the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to legislate transparency to inform the public about hygiene conditions in all restaurants in the region. They unanimously adopted a disclosure requirement on December 16, 1997 (one month after the series was aired), which went into effect on January 16, 1998. The county ordinance requires public posting of restaurant hygiene grades (A, B, or C) based on Los Angeles County Department of Health Services (DHS) inspections. By making these grades public, the Board of Supervisors sought to reduce the effects of food-borne diseases by putting competitive pressure on public eating establishments with poor hygiene practices. Not surprisingly, the requirement was opposed by the California Restaurant Association (a statewide trade group), as well as by many local restaurant associations. Although the transparency requirement was adopted at the county level, individual cities within the county were not required to adopt the ordinance (all but ten had chosen to do so by the end of 2005).
The system builds directly on the health inspections conducted regularly by the DHS. Health inspections cover a range of very specific practices, including food temperatures, kitchen and serving area handling and preparation practices, equipment cleaning and employee sanitary practices, and surveillance of vermin. Each violation receives one or more points. Cumulative points are then deducted from a starting score of 100. A score from 90 to 100 points receives an A, 80 to 89 a B, and 70 to 79 a C. Cumulative scores