The Allegheny County Board of Health voted to move forward on crafting a new restaurant grading system that would give eating establishments a letter grade from "A" to "C."
The vote came along with the stipulation that the board move forward on the framework with exact details to be worked out. Board Chair Dr. Lee Harrison gave a presentation that pointed to data out of New York City, which uses a letter grading system. He said following the initial round of grades, the number of restaurants receiving the top “A” grade rose with the second round of grades.
“The anticipated effect is that we’ll see improvement in food safety practices, because the system will provide incentives, and hopefully we will see reductions in food-borne disease,” Harrison said. “I believe it will be a win-win situation with restaurants being able to tout their grades.”
But at least one board member, Dr. Kotayya Kondaveeti, questioned how a letter grade system would impact businesses that receive a “B” or a “C.” Food safety consultant, Glenda Christy, said in Los Angeles, restaurants that received “A” grades saw an uptick in business. Kondaveeti said that is to be expected. For restaurants that don’t get a top grade, the road may be a little harder.
“I think everybody can recognize that if you don’t have an 'A,' you got trouble,” said John Graff, an owner of the Priory Hotel and member of a grading system working group. “They talked about the experience in New York, well what happened in New York is there was a very, very high percentage of restaurants that got 'Bs' initially and they suffered a very, very high loss of business. It was a big problem and certainly we would see that happen here.”
Graff is also the immediate past president of the PA Restaurant and Lodging Association western chapter and said the group is against the grading system. But, “rather than be obstructionist in this process, we want to be a part of it. We want to try and make this process, to the extent that it’s coming, the most effective and the most fair and most consistently applied process it can be.”
Graff also noted that it’s not only restaurants that will be affected by the grading system.
“This is many sort of amateur kitchens,” he said. “It’s church basements. It’s the little league snack bar.”
The proposal being worked on now uses a 100 point scale and assigns letter grades "A," "B" or "C" based on those scores. Scoring below an "A" could be from a number of smaller offenses, which will be worth 5, 3 or 1 points. Anything below the "C" threshold (70) would require immediate action be taken, including closure for situations that pose a threat to public safety.
“An example would be if when an inspector goes on an inspection and they walk into the facility and they see sewage coming up in the food preparation area in the kitchen,” said Christy, “that would be considered an imminent hazard and we would immediately suspend the permit of that facility and close the facility, so at that point, grading is a moot point.”
Harrison said health inspections would be the same as they are now, but the results will be easier for the public to understand. Currently, health inspections are available online, but they can be hard for someone outside of the restaurant industry to understand.
The board laid out a schedule for implementation of the system. While the next several months will include working out the details, piloting the system may begin in July or August. The board is shooting for implementation in September if the final grading system is passed.