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Vanaski: Patrons of Allegheny County restaurants deserve grading system

| Wednesday, April 8, 2015, 11:12 p.m.

The first time I took the test to get my driver's license, I cut the wheel too close to the sidewalk and bumped it. Barely.

But the instructor immediately ended the test and told me I had failed.

In all the hours I had spent learning to drive, I hadn't hit a curb before. But the examiners don't follow you around — they judge you based on your test. Just like students are rated on a test in school.

It's this idea of rating someone or something based on one point in time that seems to be at the heart of this debate going on over restaurant grading in Allegheny County. The county Health Department has been trying to establish a restaurant grading system so that a letter grade is clearly visible to potential customers. The Tribune-Review reported last week, however, that the proposal is finding little support among county council members and restaurant owners.

Do you know who would really be interested in having a restaurant grading system? People who eat at restaurants in Allegheny County.

During a public comment period last summer, many people said the letter grading system was a good idea. Sure, all restaurants are inspected, and the results of these inspections are posted on the department's website. But what if your WiFi signal is weak and you can't access it on your phone? Or you're not clear what a reported violation means?

A grade at the front of the restaurant is a clear and easy way for people to understand the risk involved with eating at a certain establishment. Restaurant owners have said the grades wouldn't accurately reflect an establishment but would rather be based on one point in time. Which is the purpose of an inspection test. In fact, these letter grades would be based on an establishment's annual inspection.

I asked Melissa Bova, the director of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, what exactly the problem is with this idea. She said that the focus of any evaluation should be food safety, and this proposed system wouldn't ensure that.

For example, she said, a business could be dinged for having a paper towel holder in the bathroom that's empty. She also said county inspectors can be inconsistent.

“If an inspector is having a bad day, that could ruin your business,” she told me.

Jim Thompson, deputy director of environmental health for the county Health Department, conceded that some inspectors were removed recently for inspection practices — they were being too lenient.

Thompson said paper towel dispenser violations aren't the type of thing that would shut down a restaurant.

“If that's the only thing wrong, you would still get an A,” he said.

Thompson said there is one very good reason to forge ahead with a letter grade policy.

“We have a violation rate now that's unacceptable,” he said, noting that 20 percent of food-serving facilities in the county had at least one high-risk violation, which could lead to food-borne illness.

Those are windows of opportunity that need to be closed — and ones consumers should know about.

Nafari Vanaski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8669, nvanaski@tribweb.com or on Twitter @NafariTrib.

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