Updated Allegheny County restaurant grading system sits well
A new version of Allegheny County's proposed restaurant grading system offers concessions the restaurant industry sought, but one restaurateur called the idea a “big kabuki dance.”
The updated proposal, years in the making and the first of its kind in Pennsylvania, will go before the county's board of health on Wednesday. It outlines how restaurants can earn bonus points, scales back on punishments for cleanliness violations and allows for re-inspection before letter grades lower than an A are posted publicly, according to materials given to health department officials before the meeting.
The system is one the restaurant industry can stomach, said John Graf, owner of The Priory in the North Side and president of the Western Chapter of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association.
“That's the B.S. about the grades. You could have a C and still pass,” Graf said, adding that earning a C does not mean a restaurant poses a public health threat. The county shuts restaurants that threaten public health and will continue to do so, Graf said.
“It's a big kabuki dance. If a restaurant is unsafe, shut it down,” he said.
The rules would apply countywide, from fine dining establishments Downtown to fast-food and drive-in spots farther out. The health department's Food Safety Division monitors about 9,000 facilities, including restaurants, retail markets, food-processing facilities, caterers, warehouses and mobile/seasonal vendors.
The health department and Dr. Lee Harrison, board chairman, declined to comment on the system or whether a vote will be taken on Wednesday. Graf said he does not expect a vote.
Guillermo Cole, a department spokesman, said Allegheny County Council will eventually vote on the system.
Publicly posted restaurant grades are common in other areas, including New York City, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina and parts of California and Washington.
Harrison recently shared data from Los Angeles County that suggested a 13 percent drop in foodborne disease hospitalizations in the year after implementation of a grading system in 1998. In New York City and Tennessee, restaurants with initially low scores often score higher on subsequent inspections, he said.
“The ultimate goal is education,” said Greg Adkins, president and CEO of Nashville-based restaurant advocacy group Tennessee Hospitality and Tourism Association.
Tennessee law requires that food service establishments post their scores based on inspections performed at least twice a year. If any critical issue arises, the restaurant is out of compliance. Owners have 10 days to fix the issue or must close until they do.
“As a restaurant owner, if you're not doing a great job, you need to know,” Adkins said.
County administrators representing the Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga and Knoxville areas contract inspections through the state, similar to how Allegheny County would enforce comparable but more stringent posting rules than state requires.
County health officials rejected a grading proposal in 2011. County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has pushed for a reboot since taking office in 2012.
If passed, violations would be assessed one, three or five points depending on the risk they pose to public health. Grades would drop one letter for every 10 points deducted. Restaurants scoring 69 points or less — below a C — could be subject to enforcement actions or closure.
Restaurants scoring below an A would have a chance to fix violations and be re-inspected before the grade is posted. Second inspection grades will be final, though owners can pay $150 for a third inspection.
Adkins called that buffer between repeat inspections “reasonable, especially for new (restaurant) owners.”
“Half the time, (inspectors) knock off points for little things that are easy to fix,” he said. “Like say you lost a few points for not posting your refrigerator temps, but it's because the inspector didn't see the thermometer. You bring him back in and say, ‘Hey, there was a thermometer, you just didn't see it. It's right here.' Little things like that.”
Graf said the delay in posting would only be during the first year as restaurants adjust to the system. After the first year, grades would go up after first inspection.
Inspectors would not deduct points for up to two “cosmetic” violations, Graf said, and bonus points could be earned for “exceptional food safety practices,” according to the updated policy. Some bonuses, such as logging food temperatures, are not required by the health code, Graf said. Others, such as having no cooking violations, appear to reward eateries for following the rules.
Graf disagreed that restaurants would be rewarded for following the health code.