All Articles Food The effects of overhauling restaurant-inspection systems

The effects of overhauling restaurant-inspection systems

3 min read


In Allegheny County, Pa., the County Council put a much-debated proposal for a restaurant letter-grade system on hold after the Board of Health voted to replace the county’s food-safety code with one recently adopted by the state. If the council votes to approve the board’s decision, it will need to reconfigure the county’s system to meet state standards, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported, and the resulting system might not include letter grades. The board and the council could still opt to adopt letter grades, but they would do so over strong objections from restaurants, many of which said the existing inspection system is enough. The problem, they said, is that there aren’t enough inspectors. “Safety is your integrity,” said Smallman Street Deli owner Jeff Cohen. “It’s more important than anything else you do in a restaurant. And everyone knows that.”

Restaurants in Louisville, Ky., were barely getting used to a letter-grade system when health officials made it stricter. Under a Jan. 1 rule change, restaurants that receive a C must wait until their next regularly scheduled inspection to earn a higher grade. That can take six months or more and, even if an establishment fixes the problem the minute inspectors leave and the eatery gains a perfect score in the mandatory follow-up inspection about a week later, the highest grade the restaurant can receive is a B, according to The Courier-Journal.

Health officials said a B is a passing score, while an A means the eatery goes above and beyond. But restaurateurs are upset about the policy because they said patrons see anything less than an A as suspect.

While Louisville made its system stricter, officials in the Phoenix area are putting more of the responsibility for ensuring food safety in the hands of restaurant operators. In Maricopa County, Ariz., the health department launched a pilot program this year that lets participating eateries police themselves, to an extent. Eateries that enter the voluntary program must develop a food-safety program that meets federal guidelines and train employees to carry it out, according to The Arizona Republic. They’re still subject to two to four unannounced inspections, but every other one is a “verification visit” to make sure the restaurant is living up to its policies, rather than a full inspection.

The point of the program is to encourage a cooperative approach to food safety and allow health inspectors to focus more on high-risk establishments, although some critics worry that giving eateries more control could backfire and create public health risks. “Most people, when they are at work, are thinking about work, and they’re not thinking about the potential consequences of not paying attention,” said lawyer Bill Marler, who has represented food-poisoning victims, beginning with the 1993 E. coli outbreak at Jack in the Box.

Do you think letter-grade systems are fair and helpful to consumers? What about systems that involve self-policing — can they work? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.