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Restaurants will receive grades under county health board plan

| Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, 11:27 p.m.

The Allegheny County Health Department soon will roll out the A, B, C and Ds of a new restaurant grading program, officials said.

Critics, though, worry that a letter grade could misinform diners and unfairly hurt businesses.

The county health department hired Glenda Christy, who once ran the county's food safety division. She will develop the long-discussed grading system and evaluate the county's restaurant inspection system, the director, Dr. Karen Hacker, told Board of Health members at a meeting on Wednesday.

Christy, who started Monday, will make $75 an hour. Hacker said she expects Christy to have a plan ready in March. Christy could not be reached for comment.

“The idea is to have a system that is fair to the industry with a focus on public health,” said Dr. Lee Harrison, chair of the board of health.

He said the program would be a “win-win” for restaurants, which can promote their safety and cleanliness grades; and for customers, who would gain a better understanding of the county's inspection standards.

Harrison said the grades — either letter grades or a numeric score — would be posted in restaurants and based on annual inspection results. He said the grades are not meant to be punitive.

Christy will recommend grading criteria; whether restaurants can fix a violation before posting a grade; and how long grades are valid.

Board member Dr. Kotayya Kondaveeti expressed concern that the grades would hurt the county's restaurants.

Most restaurants oppose the grading system, said John Graf, president of the Western Chapter of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association and owner of The Priory, a banquet center and hotel in the North Side.

“I don't see it as communicating useful information to the public,” Graf said. “What you're looking at is a once-a-year inspection that looks at a snapshot in time.”

Graf said inspections are complex, nuanced and too complicated to represent in a single letter. Before the county implements a grading system, it should overhaul its inspection program, he said.

“It's about giving people as much information as easily as they can,” said county Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who has pushed to implement restaurant inspection grades since he took office in 2012.

The county has discussed a restaurant grading system since at least 2010. A similar measure fizzled in 2011. Fitzgerald said that with Hacker in place as the health department's new director, now is the right time to move forward on the grading system.

“There were a whole lot of things that weren't being done right that are being done a lot better under Dr. Hacker,” Fitzgerald said.

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412- 320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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