Grade A: The county advances its restaurant rating system

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The Allegheny County Board of Health took a long-awaited step Monday when members approved plans that call for posting cleanliness grades at restaurants and other food establishments.

Their work isn’t finished.

The nine-member panel voted for a system that would post easy-to-understand grades of A, B or C starting in September for restaurants, banquet halls, social clubs, church kitchens, snack bars, bakeries, caterers, convenience stores and food facilities at universities and hospitals. Later on, the grading would go into effect for school cafeterias, supermarkets and personal care and nursing homes.

Before the plan can be implemented, though, the board must consider how soon after an inspection the grades would go up, whether they would include percentage scores in addition to letter grades, how long they would remain in place and how re-inspections and appeals would be handled. Those details are important, but they should not be an excuse for delay or backpedaling.

The county’s health board approved a grading plan three years ago, but it was thrown out before it could be implemented. That’s not likely now, because the effort has the support of County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and the county’s new health director, Karen Hacker. After the board gives final approval, expected in May, the plan also must be approved by Allegheny County Council.

Restaurant patrons deserve a rating system that is clear, in contrast to the current method, which health board chairman Lee Harrison said is understandable only “if you are a food safety expert.”

The health board’s progress is worth applause, but it won’t win an ovation until the task is complete.

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