Over a dozen local restaurant operators Tuesday evening convened in an Allegheny County Health Department public hearing, where they chewed and spat out an A-B-C grade system based on compliance with food safety procedures.
If passed, Allegheny County residents will see letter grades posted on the doors of all public eating facilities by early September — including restaurants, church kitchens, schools, supermarkets, nursing homes and pool snack bars.
“We’re basically providing an easily interpretable mechanism by which the consumer can interpret our inspections,” said Jim Thompson, deputy director of environmental health.
Grading would be based on compliance with 33 categories of safety provisions that span from tossing expired food and washing used cutlery to providing separate changing facilities and toilets for employees. Any grade below an “A” will require a follow-up inspection of the establishment. Further reinspections may be requested once every calendar year for a fee of $150 at the owner’s expense. Imminent health hazards — such as roof leakage onto food or major cockroach infestations — will warrant the immediate closure of the eatery.
The grading system is a hot potato for Allegheny County restaurant owners, who successfully challenged a similar proposal in March 2011. “It feels a little bit like Groundhog Day,” quipped Kevin Joyce, owner of the Carlton, Downtown.
As in 2011, the central concern of local operators is an alleged misallocation of $3.4 million in federal funds to combat food borne illnesses. “There are only 17 inspectors for over 9,000 facilities and no measures to ensure consistent grading across the board,” said Mehrdad Emamzadeh, a veteran of the hospitality industry.
Opponents of the program also noted that letter grades would constitute but a “snapshot in time,” unreasonably penalizing human error in a public fashion that would “virtually ruin reputations.” Mr. Emamzadeh, along with two restaurant owners, vowed not to open new establishments in the county if the grade plan were enacted.
John Longstreet, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, suggested allocating funds to activities “that actually improve food safety,” such as the training of more inspectors and an increase in the number of inspections required per year. “By targeting a county that is nationally recognized for the quality of its health inspections, we make food safety worse.”
Despite board concessions such as a reduction in reinspections and the establishment of a fund to distribute monies toward department activities that improve food safety and awareness, Mr. Joyce and others affirmed that “very little has changed in three years.”
Seven of the 11 who testified at the meeting accused the Post-Gazette of inaccurately painting a small number of “exceptional violators” of safety precautions as representative of all Allegheny County food establishments. “The Post-Gazette is responsible for pushing its agenda on the Board of Health, turning inspectors into the food police,” declared Mr.Joyce.
In response, David M. Shribman, the newspaper's executive editor and vice president, said, “Just as restaurateurs serve the community with food and drink, the Post-Gazette serves the community with fair-minded but aggressive reporting.
“The Post-Gazette’s role and duty are to provide vital information on these sorts of important topics. We expect to continue performing in this role, which is both our responsibility and what our readers expect of us.”
The proposal will be available for public comment through Thursday at www.achd.net.
Rocio Labrador: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1370.