Allegheny County health board approves plan to post grades on restaurant doors

Three years ago, opponents successfully beat back an Allegheny County Health Department plan to start posting grades on restaurant doors.

Not this time.

The county Board of Health on Wednesday gave the final nod to the proposal at its regular board meeting after approving a framework for a grading system in May. The vote was 6 to 1, with board member Anthony Ferraro dissenting.

The plan now goes to Allegheny County Council and county Executive Rich Fitzgerald for consideration. Mr. Fitzgerald has been a strong supporter of the measure.

The health department plans to launch the grading system in mid-January. At that time, restaurants and certain other food facilities would be assigned A-B-C letter grades based on their annual inspections.

PG graphic: Grading system
(Click image for larger version)

Currently, health inspectors record food safety violations but do not tally scores.

Proponents say posting grades publicly helps diners make informed choices and gives restaurant owners added incentive to maintain high food-safety standards.

But a contingent of prominent local restaurant owners doesn’t agree.

As they’ve done in the past, several turned out Wednesday to blast the plan, reiterating their assertions that grades were unnecessary, confusing and could unfairly damage their businesses.

“The difference between an A or a B could mean the difference between an establishment surviving or failing,” said Steve Gonzalez, general manager at the St. Clair Country Club in Upper St. Clair, and one of nine food industry professionals speaking against grades at the meeting in Lawrenceville.

“I have enjoyed a collaborative relationship with the county health department,” he said. “I think [grades] will undermine that collaborative effort.”

Kevin Joyce, owner of The Carlton Restaurant, Downtown, said grades would “imperil” businesses and tax the resources of the health department.

“The Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association is 100 percent opposed to this grading system,” he said.

Under the health department’s plan, the process for posting grades would be different the first year than in subsequent years.

Initially, if a restaurant scored below an A, the grade would be withheld until after a follow-up inspection, giving the facility a second chance to improve. In the second year, the food facility would still get the second chance, but the grade would have to be posted pending the results of the reinspection.

Operators who still didn’t agree with their grades could pay $150 for up to one additional follow-up inspection per year.

Under the scoring system, inspectors start at 100 percent and subtract points for each food safety violation. Places that earned below a C would be subject to enforcement action such as having to post a Consumer Alert placard or being ordered to close.

Putting scores on doors has been gaining favor nationwide. One of the toughest programs was implemented in New York City in 2010 despite a raucous outcry from the food industry.

The Allegheny County Health Department’s scoring plan is more lenient than New York’s, a fact that seemed to be reflected in the results of a six-week pilot program that the department conducted in July and August to test the system.

Under the pilot program, which involved about 750 local restaurants, 75 percent of facilities received an A during their initial inspection. That percentage rose to 91 percent after the second-chance, follow-up inspections.

By comparison, 27 percent of New York restaurants scored an A on their initial inspections during the first six months of the program. After receiving a follow-up look, the A group rose to 57 percent.

Health board member Donald Burke noted that under the county’s plan, a restaurant could be hit with two critical violations — the most serious types of infractions that have the potential to cause foodborne illnesses — and still receive an A grade.

The department’s food safety director, Donna Scharding, responded that inspectors would conduct a reinspection to ensure any high-risk violations had been fixed even if a facility had scored an A.

Plans call for grading restaurants and most of the other food facilities inspected by the health department, including such places as banquet halls, social clubs, church kitchens, caterers, mobile vendors and convenience stores.

Under phase two of the program — a time frame for which hasn’t been set — supermarkets, school cafeterias, personal-care homes and nursing homes would be added.

Patricia Sabatini: or 412-263-3066. First Published September 3, 2014 2:18 PM

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