Health Department's new grading system ruffles restaurants
A proposed restaurant grading system for Allegheny County likely will give few establishments top marks, restaurant and county officials said.
The county's Board of Health on Monday will hear initial plans for a program to post A, B or C grades outside restaurants starting in September, said Jim Thompson, deputy director of environmental health.
“There will be a significant number of Bs and Cs,” Thompson said.
About half of the county's 7,200 permitted establishments had at least one violation last year, and about 5 percent have three or more violations, Thompson said. One violation, depending on the severity, could knock a restaurant from an A to a B, Thompson said. Three or more violations likely would result in a C.
Restaurant grades have been on the Health Department's agenda for years. Board members rejected a grading proposal in 2011. County Executive Rich Fitzgerald pushed for the grading system and has said with the department's new leadership, now is the time to move ahead.
“The inspection itself is the same. The food regulation is the same, but we are translating what we find into a format that the customers really understand,” said Dr. Lee Harrison, the board's chairman.
Harrison, who headed a committee that worked with the restaurant industry to study grading systems, said he would present data showing how letter grades in other communities improved inspection scores.
John Graf, owner of The Priory in the North Side and president of the Western Chapter of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, said a C grade posted outside some restaurants would shut them down and B grades could cause confusion among customers.
“Based on the matrixes I've seen, a surprising number of restaurants will end up with Bs,” Graf said. “What does a B mean? What does it mean for the customer? Is it safe?”
Health officials have not determined how to determine grades or weigh violations, Thompson said. In general, an A will mean the restaurant has excellent food handling procedures, a B denotes generally good procedures, and a C indicates a potential risk. A C does not mean customers are at risk, Thompson said.
Health and safety violations include food stored improperly or kept at incorrect temperatures. Restaurants can be cited for not labeling cleaning chemicals, the presence of insects or rodents or missing ceiling tiles. If an inspector feels a violation poses an immediate risk to customers, the restaurant can be ordered to close, Thompson said.
Graf, who plans to attend the meeting on Monday, said a grading system is not an effective way to improve food safety. It punishes restaurants that may have had an uncharacteristically bad inspection.
The proposed system gives restaurants the option of a reinspection — for a fee, Thompson said.
“We think it is very important to have a rigorous reinspection system that, No. 1, is not cost-prohibitive to the operation; No. 2, that is done quickly; and No. 3, happens before grades go up,” Graf said.
Details about the reinspection fees and timing need to be worked out, Thompson said. Grades, however, will be posted after initial inspections.
Joe Bello, executive chef and general manager at The Wooden Nickel Restaurant in Monroeville, said he sees positives and negatives to a grading system. He worries that something unforeseeable or uncontrollable during an inspection could drop a restaurant's grade unfairly. But he thinks grades could motivate restaurants to pay closer attention to health and safety regulations.
Braden Mackey, 23, of Mt. Washington welcomes the idea of letter grades posted outside restaurants. He typically relies on Internet reviews when investigating restaurants. A grade of C, he said, would not deter him from ordering from a menu.
“A C is still passing, so I would probably try it out,” Mackey said.
Bonnie Bogovich, 32, of Squirrel Hill and Kwame Babb, 35, of Swissvale would hesitate to dine in a low-graded restaurant. Bogovich got food poisoning once from bad guacamole.
“I'm a fan of health and safety,” she said.
Aaron Aupperlee is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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