If you go out to eat in Sacramento County, the odds that the restaurant will use safe and healthy practices to prepare your food are better than they were five years ago.
Since the county launched a new restaurant inspection system in January 2007, the rate of major food safety violations the kind that could sicken a patron have dropped by nearly half.
In 2006, the year before the new restaurant-rating program began, every 100 inspections turned up 64 such violations, including some cases of multiple offenses at the same site. Last year, the rate was down to 37.
Additionally, the number of restaurants that pass inspection on routine, unannounced visits since the program began has increased from 88 percent to 94 percent.
"We've come a long way in terms of improved food safety in Sacramento County," said John Rogers, who took over as chief of the county's Environmental Health Division in 2006. "And the food industry has stepped up."
There was room for all this improvement. In 2002, The Bee reported that Sacramento's standards and enforcement were weak. Some restaurants had gone 18 months or longer without an inspection, while dozens of repeat offenders kept operating with little penalty.
That coverage prompted the county to remake its food inspection program, Rogers said.
Borrowing an idea from Toronto, Sacramento created a red-yellow-green rating system for restaurants. At the same time, it started hiring more inspectors and eventually tripled its number of inspections.
Under the new system, restaurants in the county get three inspections a year, while markets and produce stands each get two.
Sacramento conducted 5,600 food inspections in 2004, before the red-yellow-green program started. Last year, it conducted more than 16,000.
To carry out all that enforcement, the county has doubled the number of inspectors it employs, from 15 nearly a decade ago to 31 today.
The inspections emphasize major violations with the potential to cause illness, such as keeping food at unsafe temperatures or risking cross-contamination, for example by cutting raw chicken and fresh vegetables on the same surface.
A restaurant with none or one of those violations gets a pass and a green placard. The paper placards must be posted within five feet of the establishment's front door.
Two or more violations earn a yellow placard, or a "conditional pass."
Inspectors return to those restaurants within 72 hours to ensure that the errors have been fixed. If so, the restaurant graduates from yellow to green. If not, the owner must pay $213 each time the inspector has to return.
When there are imminent health hazards, such as a rat infestation or a sewage backup in the kitchen, the restaurant gets a red placard and must immediately close until it fixes its problems.
Smaller violations, such as debris under the stove or a hole in the wall, will still earn a restaurant a write-up and a reinspection, but they're kept separate from major threats to health.
"We like our program because it's simple and it focuses on those things that really matter," Rogers said. Plus, he added, the stoplight-themed placards provide "a simple and clear message for the public."
The county handed out 680 yellow placards in 2010, compared with more than 1,100 three years earlier. Red-placard smackdowns have held steady at just over 110 annually.
"When you know they're coming in three times a year, you make sure your restaurant is kept up better and that your crew is trained more properly," said Bobby Coyote, owner of the four Dos Coyotes Border Café eateries in Sacramento County, plus locations in surrounding areas.
The increased scrutiny "is good for business," he said. "You get a green, you have some bragging rights."
Daniel Conway, spokesman for the California Restaurant Association, concurred.
"Most restaurateurs favor this program because, to the extent that restaurants are penalized, it's those that tend to cut corners," Conway said. "So it's a way for good actors to set themselves apart."
It's difficult to determine whether restaurants' improved safety ratings have actually translated into fewer illnesses, said Rogers. Not everyone who gets sick sees a doctor, and among those who do, it's hard to know if food was the cause and if it was, which meal.
Concerned customers can now pick restaurants based on placard color using their smartphones. The county's Sac Food app, available for the Android and iPhone, displays a map of restaurants near your current location, color-coded in red, yellow and green to match their latest inspection.
The free app has been downloaded at least 400 times since it debuted in December.