The Wrigleyville sports bar Sluggers failed two health inspections in August 2011 after inspectors found live roaches, "hundreds" of fruit flies and sinks where water did not flow long enough for employees to wash their hands properly. The bar finally passed on its third attempt, records show.
Under city rules, state requirements and federal guidelines, inspectors should have revisited Sluggers twice the next year.
But the city waited two years to return to the bar, whose menu includes burgers, sandwiches, salads and chicken wings. After the Tribune brought the delay to the city's attention, an inspector's visit Aug. 19 turned up gnats in the bar area and mouse droppings in the storage room.
Many health experts say high-risk food establishments — mostly restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses that prepare food from scratch — should be inspected at least two times a year to protect customers. But the Chicago Department of Public Health has fallen far short of that mark for at least the past seven years.
Last year only 32 percent of 4,000 high-risk venues in Chicago were inspected twice, a Tribune analysis of city records shows. Inspectors visited 78 percent at least once, meaning nearly a quarter — 892 venues — were not inspected at all in 2012.
The Tribune also found nearly 1,000 Chicago establishments with retail food licenses that the Health Department had not inspected since at least 2009. Most are considered low-risk because they sell prepackaged food, but the department sent inspectors into four establishments in August after the Tribune noted they fell into the high-risk group.
Chicago's lackluster inspection record earned the city a finding of noncompliance from the Illinois Department of Public Health in April 2012. Out of 96 local health departments that receive grants from state officials, three are currently out of compliance, including Chicago.
In a corrective action plan submitted to the state in November, the city acknowledged that it was not doing enough inspections and determined that "the primary reason for this finding is a lack of field sanitarians (inspectors)." It pledged to field a staff of 38 this year and ramp up to 43 by the year's end.
The Health Department currently has 32 working health inspectors, plus three on leave, and is in the process of filling four more positions, a spokesman said.
A spokeswoman for the Illinois Health Department said the state would like to see Chicago comply with state requirements by 2015. The city was allowed to set an interim goal of inspecting all high-risk establishments once this year — half as often as usually required — and the Chicago Health Department is on track to succeed.
Gerrin Butler, Chicago's director of food protection, said "it's too early to say" when the department would meet the twice-a-year inspection standard or reach its staffing goals.
Chicago residents and visitors can be confident that the food they eat in restaurants is safe, Butler said, because the city focuses its limited resources on establishments that pose the highest risk and makes follow-up visits to those where serious problems are found.
"We are prioritizing our inspections according to public health," Butler said. "That is what is going to help protect Chicagoans."
Of course, restaurants have incentives to stay clean besides the possibility of an inspection.
But straying from recognized health standards can result in real and severe consequences, said Chris Waldrop, director of the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute.
Cockroaches and other insects can contaminate food and food surfaces with bacteria and filth, he said. Foods not stored at proper temperatures can promote the growth of pathogens, which can spread to other food items.
The consequences of eating contaminated food, he said, "can be a few days of uncomfortable illness or it can advance beyond that to hospitalization and death."
Improper temperatures are among the most common violations, said nine-year city inspector Kimberly Franklin, who checks to ensure that cold food is kept at 40 degrees or below and hot food at 140 or above.
The Tribune's review of city data found that temperature problems were discovered at venues that had gone long periods without an inspection and that venues with a history of such problems were nevertheless passed over for inspection.