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Allegheny County's restaurant grading trial wraps up; tweaks possible

Aaron Aupperlee | Tribune-Review
Erik Schlaich (left), a restaurant inspector for the Allegheny County Health Department, points out a potential problem with the bar dishwasher to Buffalo Wild Wings General Manager of Operations Dave Richards (center) and Regional Manager John Devine during an inspection of the West Mifflin location on Thursday, August 7, 2014.

Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, 10:54 p.m.
 

A dented can of peaches would cost an Allegheny County restaurant top marks under a proposed restaurant letter-grading system that ends a six-week test run on Tuesday.

Officials found they may need to tweak the rating system to ensure that it fairly reflects inspection results, said Donna Scharding, manager of the food safety program, which conducts about 10,000 inspections a year.

“It scares me in the sense that these quote, unquote grades are being given out without any context,” said John Graf, owner of The Priory in the North Side and president of the Western Chapter of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association. “I don't see it conveying any kind of useful information.”

During the trial, inspectors kept the grades confidential, but if the Board of Health and Allegheny County Council authorize a permanent version, grades would be posted prominently on restaurant storefronts. The industry opposes the plan, saying the grades would hurt businesses and fail to reflect food safety conditions.

Inspection violations deduct one, three or five points, depending on the risk the violations pose to public health. Restaurants that score below 90 out of 100 receive a B and below 80, a C.

Scharding said restaurants that would have received less than a C during the trial were temporarily closed or issued a consumer alert.

“It seems that we have a high percentage of As, and after any follow-up inspections that we have scheduled, the facility earns an A,” Scharding said.

Under the proposal, restaurants scoring below an A can be re-inspected for a chance to improve.

The West Mifflin Buffalo Wild Wings will have that opportunity on Thursday, when its re-inspection is scheduled.

Erik Schlaich, an environmental health specialist with the Allegheny County Health Department for three years, inspected the restaurant on Aug. 7. Equipped with a flashlight, thermometer and strips to test for sanitizer in dishwashers, he found violations in four categories.

Angela Braun Mineo, a spokeswoman for the restaurant chain with the public relations firm FleishmanHillard, said Buffalo Wild Wings supports “any changes that are made to improve food safety oversight.”

“We adhere to strict food safety guidelines and are proud to work with the Health Department to ensure our guests receive the best dining experience possible,” she said.

Scharding would not disclose what grade Schlaich gave the restaurant, but based on a grading matrix provided to the health board in May, it would have scored an 88 — a B. The restaurant had no previous food safety concerns and was among the department's low-priority inspections.

A dishwasher in the restaurant's bar was not sanitizing dishes, a five-point deduction that managers remedied immediately. A paper towel dispenser at a hand sink was empty, and a plastic food container was chipped — both one-point deductions addressed right away.

With seven points deducted, the restaurant still had an A. But the dented can of peaches — a “high-risk” violation because of the threat of contamination — deducted five points and dropped the restaurant to the B-level.

Critics of the plan, including Graf, have said well-run restaurants would needlessly receive Bs because of such violations. Scharding said inspections, such as the one at Buffalo Wild Wings, will be discussed as the department determines whether to adjust the grading system.

“That is what this pilot is allowing us to do,” Scharding said. “These are things that need to be talked about.”

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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