Allegheny County health official defends restaurant grading plan

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The Allegheny County Health Department’s plan to start hanging grades on restaurant doors, an idea that has drawn fierce opposition from some local restaurant interests, should make eating out safer, according to department executive Jim Thompson.

A recent health department analysis of about 100 randomly selected restaurant inspections in the county showed 45 percent would have scored a “B” or lower if the proposed grading system were in effect, he said.

“Having 45 percent with [numerous] serious violations is an issue,” said Mr. Thompson, deputy director of environmental health.

Forcing restaurants to display grades should provide “a significant deterrent” to ignoring food safety rules, he said. “There will be more attention paid to complying with all regulations.”

The grading plan needs the Allegheny County Board of Health and county council’s final approval before it could be implemented in the fall.

Critics of the plan — including Kevin Joyce, owner of the Carlton, Downtown, and John Graf, CEO of the Priory Hospitality Group on the North Side — say they worry a bad grade would unjustly harm businesses because scoring would be based on annual inspections that represent only a snapshot in time.

“This could destroy livelihoods,” Mr. Graf warned during a public hearing two weeks ago in Lawrenceville.

In an interview, Mr. Thompson said that protecting the public was the department’s goal. “Receiving a ‘B’ or lower means there are serious violations of the food code, which would have the potential to compromise public health,” he said.

He noted that food establishments would get a chance to improve their scores during a follow-up inspection before grades became final. Owners who still didn’t agree with their scores could pay $150 to one additional reinspection per calendar year.

Opponents of the plan also have raised concerns about the possibility of inspectors failing to apply grading criteria consistently and the department not having enough staff to do the job right.

Mr. Thompson did not see that as a concern. “We spend a lot of time training inspectors to make sure we are consistent,” he said. Although the grading system is expected to increase the number of reinspections performed, the additional workload likely could be handled through overtime, he said.

A six-week pilot program in July and August is designed to allow the department to test the grading software and work through any kinks in the scoring system. The test phase, during which no grades will be posted, will include data on follow-up inspections showing how many restaurants were able to raise their scores.

Mr. Thompson expects a “significant percentage” of restaurants would move into the “A” category when re-graded during a follow-up visit.

The six-week trial also will help managers determine if the new program overburdens inspectors and “whether we should think about adding staff,” he said.

Results of the pilot will be presented to the board in September.

Under the current plan, if a restaurant scored below an “A” during the first year of the program, the grade would be withheld until a final grade was awarded after a follow-up inspection. In subsequent years, the initial grade would be posted immediately and changed if warranted after the re-inspection. Even during the first year, initial grades would be available to the public on the health department’s website.

The county first plans to begin grading restaurants, banquet halls, social clubs, church kitchens, caterers, convenience stores and hospital and university cafeterias. Later, it would add supermarkets, school cafeterias, personal care homes and nursing homes.

Besides launching grades, the department plans to start assessing fees when inspectors must return to food facilities multiple times to ensure that serious problems were fixed. That change, which also needs the nod from the health board and county council, is aimed at repeat offenders who monopolize department resources by continually failing to fix serious health code violations.

Under the current proposal, there would be no charge for a regular inspection or one follow-up visit, but it would cost $150 for a second reinspection and $300 each if any subsequent re-inspections were needed.

Mr. Thompson said the additional revenue should defray the cost of the grading plan, making it “county tax dollar neutral.”

There are no plans to initiate re-inspection fees for other inspection-based services the department performs, such as ensuring compliance with building codes or air pollution controls, Mr. Thompson said.

“It’s a little different with restaurants because we have such a high re-inspection rate,” he said.


Patricia Sabatini: psabatini@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3066.

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