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Fábregas: Restaurant inspection grading system gets an F

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Saturday, June 14, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

There's nothing more unpleasant than being at a restaurant and finding a hair in your chicken noodle soup. Or going to the restroom at said restaurant to find there's no soap or paper towel. It has happened to all of us. (You don't want to hear what I've seen at some restaurants.)

Truth is that when we eat out, we trust that cooks and workers are doing everything they can to protect us from getting sick — or grossed out. That goes for storing ingredients at the proper temperature, making sure there's no raw chicken touching the lettuce, and keeping the place clean.

In Allegheny County, we've had a pretty decent system in place that requires restaurants and other facilities that prepare food to undergo inspections by the Health Department. For reasons that I still can't understand, county officials want to modify that by adding a grading system similar to what students get in school — A, B and C.

The Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association finds the proposal hard to swallow. It says that placing stickers with grades at a restaurant entrance can be misleading and ruin a business.

The association has a point. The group says inspectors might give a “B” to a restaurant based on point deductions that have little to do with food safety or health issues. For example, inspectors might deduct points if mops and brooms are not stored properly, or if there's too much smoke venting to the outside.

Health officials have said the grading system is not meant to be punitive. But do you know anyone who wants to eat at a “C” restaurant? I don't.

Restaurant owners have plenty of other worries. They say typical inspection visits last roughly an hour and a half, yet the grade would remain for a year.

I got my hands on the 15-page list of issues that inspectors intend to examine. Although it is thorough, I don't see how one letter grade could possibly explain to consumers the complexity of the inspections. Inspectors are expected to review everything from leaky water fixtures to food thermometers and workers' uniforms.

So the grade is not a simple ranking of a restaurant's quality, but rather one that considers many issues. This is a grade that consumers might notice in passing, without realizing what it means. I wouldn't be surprised if some people see an “A” on a restaurant door and interpret that to mean it serves first-rate steaks or exceptional pierogies.

There is, without a doubt, a need for oversight from health experts. There must be a watchful eye that ensures customers won't be exposed to food-borne illnesses and other dangers.

The Health Department posts on its website inspection reports that provide more detail than you'll care to know about your favorite restaurants. You can find out which restaurants are infested with mice, which have been cited for sewage in the basement, or which serve spoiled broccoli soup. The reports have a color-coded system: green for those that passed inspection, yellow for those where an alert was issued, and red for those ordered to close.

These reports are easy to find and quite entertaining, unless you get queasy reading about insects or gnaw marks on kitchen walls.

Grading systems are not necessarily bad. They're used effectively in New York City and parts of California. But I get the feeling we're looking to fix something that isn't broken. Let's make sure customers can understand the grades. Otherwise, the system will earn an F.

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