County health officials have been wrangling, wrestling and debating for years over a system for posting A-B-C cleanliness grades on restaurant doors.
Now it's the public's turn to weigh in.
Members of the Allegheny County Board of Health on Wednesday voted to move forward with a grading plan by releasing it for a 30-day public comment period.
It's the second time in three years that the board has called for public comment on the matter. In 2011, an outcry from local restaurant interests persuaded board members to withdraw their support for a previous grading plan.
Pittsburgh restaurant owner John Graf, director of operations for the Priory Hospitality Group and immediate past president of the Western Chapter of the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association, called the latest proposal "considerably more palatable" than the previous one but said he still had some major concerns.
Mr. Graf, who served on a committee that helped craft the latest plan, said he was pleased the health department "had an open mind" when considering industry input that resulted in some positive "adjustments," such as allowing restaurants that earn poor grades at least one chance to improve during a follow-up inspection.
But he said grades were inherently unfair because they were based on annual inspections that represent only a snapshot in time. "That's a concern we've always had," he said.
He called the scoring system that the department plans to use "arbitrary," and said he was dismayed that the idea of grades had the momentum of a moving train that board members "don't want to stop."
Putting scores on doors has been gaining favor nationwide as a way to help consumers make informed choices and better incentivize restaurants to strictly follow food safety rules. Although many restaurants get grades, including in New York City since 2010, Allegheny County would be the first in Pennsylvania to use them, Mr. Graf said.
The health department has said the goal of posting grades on doors was to make inspections more transparent for the public. Inspection reports are available on the Allegheny County Health Department's website, but health code jargon can make them hard to interpret.
According to a timetable presented to board members Wednesday, inspectors would be trained in May and June, ahead of a six-week pilot in July and August. The department also would conduct an "industry awareness" program to explain the grading system.
Board members would be asked in September to send the grading plan to Allegheny County Council for consideration, with rollout of the program within 30 days of receiving council's approval.
During the six-week pilot, no grades would be posted.
"We'll just be making sure [the system] is performing as expected," board chairman Lee Harrison said. "We anticipate we will be tweaking the system well into the future."
Phase one of the program would see grades going up at restaurants and most of the other food facilities inspected by the department, including such places as banquet halls, social clubs, church kitchens, caterers, convenience stores, and hospital and university cafeterias.
Under phase two -- a time frame for which hasn't been set -- supermarkets, school cafeterias, personal care homes and nursing homes would be added.
During the first year of the program, the process for posting grades would be different than in subsequent years.
Initially, if the restaurant scored below an "A," the grade would be withheld until after a follow-up inspection, giving the facility a chance to improve.
In the second year, restaurants scoring below an "A" still would get a follow-up inspection, but they would have to post their grades while waiting for the reinspection.
Restaurant owners who still didn't agree with their grades could pay $150 for up to one additional follow-up inspection per calendar year.
Inspectors would not hand out any grades below a "C," but facilities scoring that low would face enforcement action, such as being hit with a "Consumer Alert" placard or being forced to close until serious problems were fixed.
Under the scoring system, inspections would start at 100 percent and points would be subtracted for food safety violations.
For each critical violation -- the most serious types of infractions that have the potential to cause foodborne illnesses -- the facility would lose either five points, three points or one point, depending on the severity of the problem.
Lesser, non-critical violations -- such as dirty floors, dirty drains, garbage cans with missing or damaged lids, inadequate lighting and lack of ventilation in restrooms -- would cost one point each, although the first two such violations would be waived.
That waiver was among several concessions won by the food industry, Mr. Graf said.
Another, he said, was ensuring restaurants essentially didn't get penalized twice for the same violation that spanned more than one category.
The public comment period is expected to begin next week when the department posts the grading proposal on its website at www.achd.net.
Patricia Sabatini: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3066. First Published May 7, 2014 12:00 AM