Still on the menu: Restaurant gradings need to be more timely

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Allegheny County Health Director Karen Hacker inherited a long to-do list when she took over the agency in September, and the important issue of restaurant inspections and how to notify the public of problems remains undone.

Dr. Hacker should not have to take the rap for this failure; her predecessor, Bruce Dixon, was an obstructionist on the question of posting safety grades at the doors of establishments, and it takes more than a few months’ time to transform a department with far-reaching responsibilities — everything from monitoring the quality of the region’s air and water to inspecting public swimming pools and other accommodations to encouraging a population challenged by bad eating habits to change its ways.

Food safety in county restaurants, delis and other food purveyors is critical, too, and the latest analysis of how the county is doing gave it poor marks.

Post-Gazette reporter Patricia Sabatini checked the most recent restaurant inspection reports for 765 establishments in five regions of the county. She found that 26 percent of the inspections, which are supposed to occur once every 12 months, were late. In some cases, they were very late. Oakland’s busy Original Hot Dog Shop, for example, went 21 months between inspections. The results were not an anomaly; similar reviews she conducted in 2008 and 2010 produced similar, unsatisfactory results.

Dr. Hacker, who reviewed the newspaper’s list, said it’s important to do a full assessment of the food safety program and figure out how to make it better. Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald reaffirmed his intention to institute a system that posts grades on restaurant doors sometime next year.

It’s time to put a restaurant grading system that is transparent and easy to understand on the front burner.

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