Making the grade: The Health Department refocuses on restaurants

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The heat has finally been turned up on efforts to institute a grading system for Allegheny County’s 765 restaurants, delis, sushi bars and other dining spots.

County Health Department Director Karen Hacker recently hired a consultant to help speed the long-delayed process, and Executive Rich Fitzgerald has asked board members to make launching a grading system a priority.

That double-barreled pressure from the top was lacking in the past, and it should persuade the health board to get the job done. The board unanimously approved an A-B-C grading system two years ago but then backed off because of complaints from restaurant owners.

Consumers were the losers. If they want to know how a restaurant fared in its health and safety inspections, their only recourse is to access complicated reports on the county’s website. A simple sign at the business’s entrance would tell potential diners what they need to know when they’re hungry.

The goal is to have a system that is easy for consumers to understand and that is fair to food businesses, giving them an incentive to correct health hazards such as contaminated products, bug infestations, unsafe cooking methods and improper storage temperatures.

Dr. Hacker said a proposed rating system will be submitted to the health board at its March meeting and it could be in effect countywide by summer. Here’s hoping that happens.

Although a visible rating system is overdue and necessary, that isn’t the only improvement the health department needs to make. The county also must do a better job of conducting timely inspections, the basis for any grades the restaurants might earn. That’s how the county can guarantee that food safety is at the top of every restaurant’s menu.

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