By MICHAEL WILSON
Special to the Pilot-Tribune
With a click of a mouse, consumers can get the dish on their favorite restaurant.
And so far, a lot of people have been sampling what a new state Web site has to offer.
The Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals launched the "Informed Dining" Web site this year, giving consumers access to restaurant inspection reports. Since it started in January, the Web site has averaged about 20,000 hits a day, said Steve Young, director of the agency.
Using the Web site, consumers can enter the name of a restaurant, the city and county it is in and see a copy of an inspection report.
Young said Iowa is among the first in the country to actually have a Web site that lists the whole report.
"Some have lists with a summary of reports, but we have the complete report," he said.
The reports identify areas that are checked during an inspection, such as food storage and handling and equipment. It also lists areas of concern, such as if food wasn't stored at cool enough temperatures or if employees didn't wash their hands frequently enough. It also indicates if corrections were made.
The Web site was two years in the making, Young said, and costs about $2,000 a year to maintain.
The state inspects about 5,000 establishments, and contracts with health departments to do the rest. There are nine state inspectors that cover 22 counties. Contracts with local health departments cover the remaining 77 counties, Young said.
In all, the Web site displays reports for more than 23,000 restaurants, grocery stores and convenience stores - anywhere that food is prepared. The Web site also has links to hotels and motels.
May Schaben, vice president of education for the Iowa Restaurant Association, said her group was not involved in the development of the Web site and encouraged consumers to get more information after viewing the Web site.
"It may seem a little confusing to the general consumer," she said.
She said consumers may need further explanation about violations listed on the reports, but she added: "It does look as if the inspection department is trying to explain what everything means."
She doubts the increased access to inspection reports will affect how restaurants do business.
"No one cares more about food safety than restaurant owners," Schaben said. "They know they need to run a clean operation in order to stay open."