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Dirty truth behind restaurant grading system in Allegheny County

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Saturday, May 10, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
 

What's the rush? Who cares if a restaurant's flatware consistently contains crusty remnants when emerging from the dishwasher?

In its fourth year, the Allegheny County Health Department's prolonged attempt to devise a new grading system for restaurant sanitation and cleanliness has entered an exciting stage.

It just won't be useful to people wondering if the lights in their favorite eatery are low for romantic effect, or to make less noticeable the critters scurrying across the floor.

The health department on Wednesday announced it's ready to immediately test the proposed system's latest incarnation, just not right away. That'll happen beginning in July at every restaurant in the county, save for most of them.

Will the grades of the restaurants inspected during the test phase be released? Board of Health members answered that question by essentially saying, “Are you daft, man? We could never do that. This is but a pilot program!”

If the pilot program proves successful, if county council signs off on it, if the health department doesn't chuck the entire system and go back to square one, then the program will finally move into post-pilot mode. Perhaps.

Once that occurs (which given the tortuous history of this endeavor isn't guaranteed, but is a possible near-certainty), restaurants will be graded according to the new standards. If an eatery is found to be operating under conditions that would make most diners recoil in horror, the public will be notified.

Just not right away. You can't be too hasty in matters involving food safety and sanitation.

In the new grading system, points will be deducted for what the health department labels “non-critical violations” but what most people would consider “critical enough that I'm sure never eating at that place again.” Two unappetizing examples: Live roaches (potential five-point deduction) and dead rodents (potential three-point deduction).

If enough points are deducted to drop the letter grade from an A to a B, restaurants will have the opportunity to correct the violations and be re-inspected before the grade is publicly posted.

But second inspections are absolutely, positively final. There are no exceptions to that rule — unless the untidy restaurant owner wants to pay $150 for a third inspection. That one is absolutely, positively final under the strictest of regulations that can only be altered arbitrarily if a health department that can't seem to make up its mind on such matters chooses to do so.

Given the tortoise-paced progress the health department has made on this initiative since undertaking it in 2010, don't be surprised if the transition from pilot program to formal policy goes beyond the predicted start date in September.

That's OK, because the grading system is overly complicated and tilts unfairly in the direction of restaurateurs. Second and third chances when roaches are running rampant? After four years, this is the best the health department could do?

For restaurant patrons, that's some unappetizing food for thought.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com.

 

 

 
 


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