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Board of Health OKs test run of restaurant grading system

| Wednesday, May 7, 2014, 3:36 p.m.

Select restaurants will be part of a new Allegheny County Health Department grading system this summer that tags facilities with a letter grade of A, B or C based on cleanliness and quality.

The Allegheny County Board of Health approved a proposal on Wednesday for a 30-day pilot program.

Pending any issues and final approval by County Council, the grading system would affect as many as 9,000 food service facilities as early as September, or about 85 percent of food providers countywide, officials said.

The board chairman, Dr. Lee Harrison, told members there is “no downside to a pilot program.” No scores will be publicly posted during the trial period, he said.

The program will take place in July and August, with revisions to the grading policy as needed. The number of restaurants participating isn't decided.

Glenda Christy, a consultant hired to develop the grading system, said the first phase will begin this month with staff training, policy updates and computer programming.

The Board of Health is scheduled to consider the system for final approval in September; council would pick up discussion later that month.

Council has 60 days to approve the plan, said Karen Hacker,county Health Department director. Implementation would begin within the following month.

Board member Tony Ferraro was the lone nay in a 7-1 vote. He objected to a hard and fast timeline, he said.

“This is something we need to start on now,” said fellow member Joan Cleary.

Years in the making and the first of its kind in Pennsylvania, the system awards and subtracts points in one-, three-, and five-point intervals depending on the risk the infractions pose to public health. Restaurants can earn bonus points and, in the first year, schedule re-inspections before letter grades lower than an A are posted publicly.

The pilot phase will exempt schools, nursing homes and personal care boarding homes, Christy said.

Publicly posted restaurant grades are common elsewhere, including New York City, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina and parts of California and Washington.

County health officials rejected a similar proposal in 2011. County Executive Rich Fitzgerald pushed for the system since taking office in 2012.

In other business, the board lifted a ban on needle exchanges within 1,500 feet of schools within Pittsburgh city limits. The policy may extend to county borders eventually, but Hacker said the need is most pressing in densely populated areas.

Hacker announced a hearing on Thursday for Davin Gartley, the landlord whose Carrick apartments were forcibly vacated when tenants, many of them Bhutanese refugees, reported sewage backups flooding yards. Gartley has not addressed issues on the property, Hacker said.

Megan Harris is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com.

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