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Why ‘Restaurant Impossible’ Blows the Wrong Whistle





In the Food Network’s popular show, Restaurant Impossible, star Robert Irvine visits a failing restaurant that is poorly managed, has depressing décor, and which serves inedible food. He and his staff completely transform the business, and by show’s end there are hugs and smiles all around. Many of the restaurants Irvine visits are completely unsanitary. In a recent episode, Irvine told the owners that their place had “over 500 health code violations.” He said the kitchen was so disgusting that he would not even try the food, and told diners that they were eating at their own risk.

But neither Irvine nor the Food Network reported the establishment to the local health department. Nor did they ask how such a “disgusting” kitchen could have gone uninspected by city officials, or raise alarms as to the likelihood there were many other restaurants in the city also endangering their customers’ health. The Food Network should be exposing city health departments putting people’s health at risk, rather than continuing to put restaurant customers at risk.

Robert Irvine is the “Judge Judy” of restaurant shows, as he insults, badgers and even humiliates inept restaurant owners and staff in order to get them to turn their failing businesses into a success. But I realized in watching a recent episode that the show ignores a much broader public health issue; the apparently large number of restaurants openly violating health laws, and the pervasive failure of local health agencies to conduct restaurant inspections.

Irvine routinely walks into “disgusting” restaurants whose poor conditions include roach or rodent infestation, filthy burners and cooking areas, and inadequate refrigeration. Viewers are meant to feel sickened by what they see. Yet never is a word spoken about how public health authorities have ignored conditions so blatant that Irvine finds them within 15 minutes of entering the premises.

Waiting for Superman

The entire premise of  Restaurant Impossible is that Robert Irvine has superhero-like abilities to turnaround even the most failing restaurant. This means that he, not a city health inspector or other public official, resolves health code violations.

That restaurants selected for help by Irvine have been endangering their customer’s health potentially for years is irrelevant; these failing businesses need Irvine, not fines and citations for violating city health laws.

The show never asks whether business owners who have endangered people’s health for years can be forever redeemed after Irvine’s weekend of intense training. Nor does the show even contact a public official to ask them how they could have allowed conditions that Irvine has told a national television audience are “disgusting.”

And considering that Irvine’s findings are kept confidential until the shows are broadcast, the Food Network is not allowing former customers to learn that their past illnesses or cases of food poisoning were caused by the particular restaurant. Lawsuits could be filed against the Food Network over such concealment.

Health Inspector Impossible

What the Food Network needs is a follow-up show in which Robert Irvine goes after health departments for failing to cite restaurants for endangering their customers’ health.
What great drama as Irvine bursts into public offices, gets in the health director’s face, and starts yelling as he does at restaurant owners. In some episodes he can wave dust and dead roaches in the health official’s face and ask why they are allowing such conditions, like he does in his current show.

A show challenging non-performing health inspectors would be widely popular. It would attract everyone from Tea Partiers angry at government regulators to progressives eager to see government pressured to protect public health.

And best of all, such a show would put all health inspection agencies on notice that they could be Robert Irvine’s next target. That would improve restaurant sanitation and customer health far more than anything accomplished by the current show.

(Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron, where this post first appeared. His post is republished with permission.)

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