When you visit Wendy's on Union Boulevard in Allentown to order a No. 1 Combo, you expect a hot, fresh sandwich and fries at a bargain price. You'll also be getting a fast-food meal fixed in a kitchen that has been scrutinized for cleanliness and safety 10 times in the last five years.

But go three miles north to the Wendy's in Whitehall and your Combo will be cooked in a kitchen inspected only twice in the same period.

Both Wendy's passed muster in their most recent inspections. But the difference in the number of times each has been inspected illustrates a troubling disparity in Pennsylvania's restaurant inspection system.

This is only one of many flaws that leaves the state lagging in food safety and consumers vulnerable to bad practices and the illnesses they can cause.

A Morning Call analysis of more than 78,000 food establishment inspections throughout the region reveals that Pennsylvania's patchwork of food safety laws and public health agencies often fails to provide even minimal monitoring of restaurants and food retailers. The system is fraught with chaotic record keeping and supported by too few inspectors, many with little training and inadequate equipment.

The situation is so bad that state officials in charge of inspecting the majority of restaurants in Pennsylvania admit they cannot meet their own unofficial goal of inspecting establishments at least once a year. Records show that in some cases, Pennsylvania restaurants and food retailers go more than four or five years without a single inspection.

At the same time, the number of restaurants in Pennsylvania is growing, placing even more pressure on this overtaxed system.

And here's the kicker: It took The Morning Call nine months and a series of legal skirmishes to shake loose enough information to analyze food safety at Pennsylvania eateries and retailers.

There is no uniformity in how or whether Pennsylvanians can find out the inspection history of a food business. Some agencies make the information public. Some make parts public. Some, such as Emmaus and Coopersburg, refuse to release inspection records, saying they are not a public matter. Easton took that stance for more than two months before tentatively agreeing just last week to release some records. And some don't have records to review.

The information obtained by The Morning Call has been compiled into the first Pennsylvania online database that anyone can use to check the inspection history of the region's food establishments. (How to use the database, page A7)

The state tried to establish a strong system in 1951 when it adopted Act 315, a law that allows counties or cities to set up full-service health bureaus. But this was purely voluntary and only 10 did -- including Allentown, Bethlehem and Bucks and Montgomery counties. These communities represent the Pennsylvania version of a gold standard in food safety inspection.

The majority of Pennsylvania establishments fall under two other systems that fail in the frequency or quality of the full-service inspections.

The largest number falls under the auspices of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. The department is woefully understaffed and years behind in its inspection schedule.

About 230 mostly smaller communities have their own inspection programs, but they are unaccountable to the state and their standards and practices vary wildly.

Margaret Potter, director of the Center for Public Health Practice at the University of Pittsburgh, considered the mixed record of agencies and inspection coverage and found the state coming up short.

"Patchwork," she said, "that is a very generous description."

For a few, frequent visits

The Allentown Health Bureau has adopted the full-service system, which is at the top of the health inspection food chain. The history of Bruno's Dinette on Auburn Street illustrates the rigor of the system. Bruno's tied two other Allentown establishments for racking up the most violations that could lead directly to food contamination or illness -- called "critical violations" -- in the last five years. Inspectors in 25 visits cited Bruno's 28 times for holding food at improper temperatures, failed sanitizing systems, sloppy kitchen practices and other critical violations.

Other Allentown establishments that piled up 28 critical violations were Caribeno, 346 Ridge Ave., which is no longer in business, and the Teapot Family Restaurant, 1756 S. Fourth St.