Thursday, November 11, 2010

Grading Policies for Restaurants - Allegheny County

I am all for food safety and restaurant inspections, but I am not keen on the application of grade scores to audits.  The goal of an inspection or an audit should be to identify gaps within the establishment’s food safety system and have the establishment correct those gaps.  The auditor or inspector can be somewhat objective in determining which practices are higher risk.  But the degree of risk can be subjective.  And as they apply the score to the entire process, it becomes more subjective.  And then that score is on the books until the next inspection.  Even a clean kitchen can have a momentary food safety lapse by an employee potentially putting a  projected good score in jeopardy and more importantly, affecting that establishment’s ability to do business.

This scoring practice also puts pressure on the inspector.  While the inspector should be working with the owner on how to improve food safety, the scoring component may lead to a more confrontational relationship.  Will the inspector be willing to write an issue down knowing that the establishment’s grade will drop from a B to a C?

Inspections should identify food safety gaps and provide opportunity for the establishment to get them corrected.  While a mandated grading policy might push some operators into proactive improvement, this system can be far too subjective resulting in unfair punishment. 

Controversial Allegheny health grading policy could return
By Adam Brandolph
Monday, November 8, 2010

A controversial health inspection system for restaurants and other food servers could return to Allegheny County in the spring after being scrapped more than 15 years ago.
The county Health Department is drafting food safety guidelines that officials say will include a system to give customers a sense of how clean kitchens are. The rating -- based on "demerit" points accumulated for violations -- could be recorded as a letter grade, a numerical score or both. Restaurants would be required to post their rating for all to see.
"It could be a death blow to a lot of restaurants," said Brian Carey, owner of Cappy's Cafe on Walnut Street in Shadyside. "How do you get your rating changed is a concern. You don't want to have a 'C' rating for a whole year."
The Health Department issued letter grades beginning in the 1970s but changed to a pass/fail system in 1994 because restaurants complained the system was unfair.
"The old system took into account structural deficiencies and didn't measure cleanliness effectively," said Dr. Bruce Dixon, director of the department. "If you had structural issues, you always had a 'B.' One of the better restaurants had a 'B' because they had wooden floors in the kitchen."
The new system would "provide clear and understandable information," said Paul M. King, chairman of the health board. The department's Food Safety Division conducts annual inspections and investigates complaints at about 9,000 food establishments in the county, including street vendors, hospitals and school cafeterias.
The state Department of Agriculture inspects food services and restaurants in counties that don't have local health departments.
The new regulations would be vetted by the department's Food Advisory Committee and open for public comment before they're approved, King said. Last week, an early draft of the rules was sent back to the committee for review. Officials refused to provide that draft to the Tribune-Review.
The revised rules are to be ready in January and could be voted on in March.
Jeff Cohen, owner of the Smallman Street Deli in the Strip District and director of the Western Chapter of the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association, said he'd prefer a system based on points rather than a letter grade.
"The way the new system is proposed, a one-point difference between a score of an 89 and a score of a 90 could be the difference between of an A and a B," said Cohen, who sits on the Health Department's subcommittee charged with revising the restaurant inspection program.
"We're meeting in a few weeks to hash out a correct strategy," Cohen said. "I don't think the current system is broke now. I always find they're very fair. I think the Health Department's goal is to make sure everyone's getting a 90 or above."
Roger Kaplan, manager of a McDonald's restaurant on McKnight Road in Ross, didn't think his customers would pay attention to ratings.
"People come to McDonald's because they know they can get good food fast and cheap," he said. "And I think people will be surprised about how well we score."
Rhett Schlegel, a bartender at Rolands in the Strip District, said he doesn't know whether he'd support a change, but he thinks most restaurants would be against it.
"If it becomes law, they're just going to have to watch their Ps and Qs and keep everything perfect," he said.
Dixon said that's exactly the point.
"If a restaurant can't do things the right way and they have a 'C,' I think people are entitled to know that, aren't they? (Restaurants) should aspire to maintain quality standards so people feel comfortable with where they eat."
Rating systems have received "mixed reviews" nationwide, said Vito Palazzolo, manager of program compliance at the National Restaurant Association, an industry lobbying group.
Under laws that went into effect in August, New York City gives restaurants letter grades based on points accrued for violations. Many restaurants opposed the changes, said Andrew Rigie, director of the New York State Restaurant Association.
"A restaurant is either safe and sanitary enough to serve the public or it's not," Rigie said. "We felt an 'A' or 'F' system should be implemented because of the complexities of the health code and because of the subjectivity of the inspectors."
While critics say grading systems are gimmicky and unfair, Charles Campalong, general manager of Benkovitz Seafoods in the Strip District, said he prefers them because they differentiate especially clean kitchens from those that just pass inspection.
"Why should I bust my (butt) when other places are dirty and everybody gets the same thing?" Campalong said.
Kevin McCullogh, general manager of Church Brew Works in Lawrenceville, said new regulations would "get the restaurants that aren't doing a good job to do better."

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