New restaurant grading system on Allegheny County menu

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A new restaurant grading system, long a hot potato for the Allegheny County Health Board, has been moved to the front burner.

Health Department Director Karen Hacker told the board at its meeting Wednesday that a consultant was recently hired to speed preparation of a more comprehensive, transparent and accessible rating system for the more than 765 restaurants, delis, sushi bars and other food facilities.

The goal is to produce an A-B-C letter rating system that is fair to food purveyors while providing the incentive to correct food-related public health hazards, Dr. Hacker said.

"We want a system that takes the information collected in our current inspection system and makes it available in a more digestible form," she said.

A proposed rating system will be submitted to the Health Board at its next meeting in March, Dr. Hacker said, and could be implemented countywide by this summer.

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who briefly attended the Health Board meeting, has asked the board to make development of a restaurant grading system a priority.

Establishing a restaurant grading system has not been easy for the Health Board, which unanimously approved an A-B-C grading system two years ago, only to back away from that action af1ter several prominent restaurant owners loudly criticized the plan as unnecessary and having the potential to hurt their establishments. But that same plan was also criticized by a food safety expert at the Center for Science in the Public Interest as too easy on restaurants and for failing to provide an informative guide for diners.

Under the county's current inspection program, health inspectors record food safety violations, but do not give restaurants grades or scores that are posted at the establishments.

Dr. Hacker said the department hired Glenda Christy, a former director of food safety at the health Department and Giant Eagle, to work on the inspection policy for $75 an hour but wasn't sure how long the work would take. A health board committee, headed by Lee Harrison, its chairman, has also been working on the new rating system.

"We're moving ahead robustly to produce a good rating and management structure," said Dr. Harrison, adding that the committee has been working with the food purveyors to produce a rating system that protects public health but is "not meant to be punitive."

At the same time it's working on a restaurant rating system, the Health Department must improve its inspection program. County health inspectors are supposed to conduct a thorough inspection at each restaurant at least once a year, but last month a Post-Gazette review found 1 in 4 restaurants were not inspected within that 12-month time frame. In at least one instance, the time between inspections stretched to 21 months.

Don Hopey: or 412-263-1983.

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