Public speaks out on Allegheny County Health Department's restaurant grading plan


“Posting a grade on the front door [of a restaurant] for guests to see would only be fair if the grade could change on a week-to-week basis like a test in school.”

That was among the public comments submitted to the Allegheny County Health Department objecting to its plan to start hanging A-B-C letter grades on restaurant doors following annual inspections.

In all, the department received nearly 60 comments on the grading plan during the 30-day public comment period that ended June 12.

“Great idea. It gives the consumer so much more information than a simple pass or fail rating,” said a supporter of the plan.

“It will be a very helpful tool in determining the overall cleanliness and safety of where I choose to eat,” said another.

 

Overall, sentiments ran roughly 2-to-1 against the plan. Many of the comments opposing it were from people in the restaurant industry.

“I’ve spent years in the hospitality industry and this system could RUIN a restaurant’s reputation,” is how one put it. “If a guest sees a “B” on the door, they may NEVER come back and that’s not fair. The inspection is just one day out of a restaurant’s life. … It’s not fair to tackle the restaurant industry this way.”

Said another: “I’ve been a restaurant owner since 1978. … I do not see the need for change.”

During a public hearing last month, several representatives of the food industry said they worried that a bad grade would unjustly harm businesses because scoring would be based on a snapshot in time.

Some of the public comments responded to that criticism.

“I heard a restaurant owner complain that it’s not fair to grade a restaurant on a single point in time,” said one. “He needs to realize that if that is the point in time that my family is there, that IS the point in time that matters. The restaurant must earn the ‘‍A’‍ every day, if they feel they deserve to have customers every day.”

Said another supporter: “Thank you for your courage to push forward with this initiative. Don’t let these industry representatives kick-and-scream their way out of this responsible food safety reform.”

Strong opposition from local restaurant interests successfully beat back a similar grading plan for the county three years ago.

Copies of the public comments were obtained through Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know law. Names of the commentators were provided, but contact information was blacked out. The health department has said it plans to post the comments on its website, along with an official response.

Under the health department’s current grading plan, if a restaurant scored below an “A,” it would automatically trigger a follow-up inspection. Grades would be final after the follow-up, although restaurant owners could pay $150 to request up to one additional reinspection per year.

Last week, the department launched a six-week test run of the grading system. During the pilot, restaurants due for inspections will be graded, but the unofficial scores will only be used internally to help tweak the program.

The grading plan could be put to a vote by the Allegheny County Board of Health in early September. The plan also would need the nod from county council before it could be implemented.

 

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

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