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Diners in Allegheny County will soon begin seeing grades go up on restaurant doors under a proposal approved Monday by the county Board of Health.
Plans call for A-B-C cleanliness grades to be posted as soon as September, following a test launch in July and August.
The goal is to make food inspections more transparent for the public. Although inspection reports are available online, health code jargon can make them difficult to interpret.
"Those inspections are clear if you're a food safety expert," chairman Lee Harrison told board members Monday. He said the grades are meant to provide a "transparent tool" for consumers to select where they want to eat.
Under the current inspection program, food safety inspectors record violations but do not give restaurants grades or scores.
Besides restaurants, the health department's grading plan would cover other types of food facilities such as banquet halls, social clubs, church kitchens, snack bars, bakeries, caterers, convenience stores and food facilities at universities and hospitals.
School cafeterias, supermarkets, personal care homes and nursing homes would be phased in later.
A number of details still need to be fleshed out, such as how soon after an inspection grades would go up, how long the grades would remain posted and how an appeal process might work. The nine-member board Monday gave the nod to the framework for the grading plan, but some members said they wanted to review all the details before giving final consideration to the measure at the next board meeting in May.
Under the proposal, health inspectors would score restaurants and other food facilities during their annual inspections, starting at 100 percent and subtracting points for food safety violations.
For each critical violation -- which are the most serious types of problems that have the potential to cause foodborne illnesses -- restaurants would lose five points. Examples include undercooking chicken, holding a vat of soup at an unsafe temperature or using the same cutting board for ready-to-eat vegetables and raw meat. Lesser violations would cost either three points or one point.
Under that system, restaurants could score two critical violations and still receive an "A."
It still must be determined whether placards would display percentage scores in addition to letter grades.
Places that scored below a "C" would be hit with a "Consumer Alert" sticker or be closed until the violations were fixed.
The plan also includes six "imminent risk" conditions that, if found, would trigger an automatic closure. Examples include a sewage backup in the kitchen or major rodent or cockroach infestation.
Dr. Harrison -- who has been leading a working group with restaurant industry representatives intended to help the health department develop a plan -- called grades a "win-win" for the public and restaurant owners.
Restaurants that score well "will be able to tout their grades," he said.
Several members of the local restaurant community have been highly critical of past efforts to post grades on doors.
On Monday, two of them made formal presentations to the board expressing their concerns.
Vincent Sanzotti, who said he has worked in the local hospitality industry for some 35 years and was part of the board's working group, said he feared that many of the restaurant community's suggestions had fallen on deaf ears.
"The restaurant grading system only provides a means to penalize those with good intentions," he said.
Another member of the working group, John Graf, director of operations for the Priory Hospitality Group, wanted to see more specifics on the plan.
"The devil is in the details," he said. He urged the board to insist on including a "robust reinspection" before restaurants are required to post their grades.
Physician and board member Kotayya Kondaveeti said he would be more in favor of a pass/fail system. "Those with [low grades] will lose customers," he said.
"As members of the board of health, we are here to protect the public," board vice chairman William Youngblood said. "Those with no 'A' the first time will have the opportunity to get one the next time."
Any grading plan would be a long time in coming for the county.
A proposal to post grades on doors was approved by the board three years ago but was never implemented. Board members threw out the plan following an outcry from prominent local restaurant owners who called the measure unfair and unnecessary. Those critics also said it would put them at a disadvantage because restaurants outside Allegheny County are not subject to grades.
The practice of grading restaurants and posting the results publicly has been gaining traction nationwide as a way to help consumers make informed choices and spur restaurants to strictly follow food safety rules.
New York City launched a grading program for its some 24,000 restaurants in 2010. Some other areas with restaurant grades include Los Angeles, San Diego, and the states of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.
"We're not exactly on the cutting edge," Dr. Harrison said. "Many other places have grades."
If board members give the plan the final nod in May, it would go to Allegheny County Council for consideration.
County executive Rich Fitzgerald has said he is strongly in favor of posting grades on doors and has asked the health department to make implementation a priority.
Patricia Sabatini: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3066. First Published March 3, 2014 10:49 AM