Karen Booth and her husband like to find "hole in the wall" restaurants that seem undiscovered, though there are times when she has walked in and wondered when the last time the health department paid a visit.
Now the Walnut Creek resident and self-described foodie will have to wonder no more. She can download a new app on her smart phone created by Contra Costa Health Services that allows her to see health inspection results for local restaurants.
"I think it's great, the more information the better, especially when it comes to your food," said Booth.
The free app called "California Food Inspector" was developed by the county health department's environmental health division, whose food safety inspectors conduct thousands of unannounced restaurant inspections every year in an effort to prevent food-borne illnesses.
Customers can search inspection results for the 4,200 food facilities in the county, that includes restaurants, delis and ice cream and coffee shops to find what violations, if any, the establishment has been instructed to fix.
Each facility in the county is subject to surprise inspections twice a year and if something is found that needs fixing, the inspector follows up within the week, said Marilyn Underwood, county environmental health director.
Most restaurants tend to have some minor infractions. It's the major violations consumers should be wary of, she said. With five years of data available on the app, customers can look back and see if the violations were flukes or consistent problems, Underwood said.
"Maybe (the restaurant) has one bad day but if they have that same bad day consistently over five years, then you start to wonder," she said.
Inspectors' duties include looking for dirty cutting boards, faulty refrigerators, cross-contamination of meats, employees who don't wash their hands and cooks who are not wearing hair restraints.
The inspection results have been posted on the department's website for the last five years, but the app allows someone sitting at the restaurant to quickly check things out, Underwood said. She cautions that a major violation doesn't mean a customer will get sick, it just increases the odds of getting a food-borne illness.
Ellen McCarty, co-owner of Walnut Creek Yacht Club, said the more information on a restaurant's inspections the better, but the app doesn't give patrons the whole story. It doesn't specify why the restaurant was dinged, it only gives examples of what the violation could be, she said.
"They should be more explicit and say exactly what (the violation was) so people can decide for themselves if it doesn't sound major to them ... Otherwise the public may just get freaked out," she said.
The Walnut Creek restaurant is "scrupulous" about cleaning, especially because they specialize in seafood, she said.
To help people better decipher what the violations mean, the health department plans to implement an A-F grading system by the end of the year, Underwood said.
The app also offers a closures button detailing which eateries in the county have been forced to temporarily close their doors to correct serious violations that pose an imminent threat to their customers' health.
Transparency and access to health inspection reports is something the California Restaurant Association, representing more than 22,000 businesses in the state, supports said Angelica Pappas, spokeswoman for the trade group.
Their only concern is efficient turnaround time of information, she said.
"It's simply unfair and unacceptable to a restaurant to have inaccurate information lingering online for public viewing if a reinspection has been conducted and the restaurant is in full compliance," she said.
Contra Costa routine inspections are uploaded weekly and the closure information is updated every evening.
To learn more about California Food Inspector, visit the iTunes store. The app is also available for Android phones.
Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.