Restaurant grading proposal again being developed for Allegheny County
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The Allegheny County Health Department is again working on a proposal to start issuing A-B-C cleanliness grades for restaurants in the county.
The move comes nearly a year after the county Board of Health scrapped a proposed grading plan following an outcry from prominent restaurant owners who objected to posting grades on their doors.
"We think it's worth a fresh look," acting health department director Ron Voorhees said after a board of health meeting Wednesday. "There's a lot of sentiment in favor of going ahead with it."
Dr. Voorhees, who stepped in as interim chief after longtime director Bruce Dixon lost his job in early June, said the department hoped to have a grading proposal ready for the board by the next meeting on Sept. 5.
Last September, the board voted to scuttle a restaurant grading plan that had been in the works for nearly a year. It was a striking reversal for the panel, which nine months earlier had unanimously approved the proposal and released it for public comment.
In September, then-vice chairman Lee Harrison was the only board member who argued to save the plan, saying he believed it would make restaurants cleaner and safer. Since then, Dr. Harrison was named chairman and several new members joined the board.
Last year, outspoken restaurant owners blasted the grading plan at a public hearing, calling it unnecessary and potentially confusing to the public. They also called the proposal unfair, saying it would put restaurants in Allegheny County at a disadvantage to restaurants in surrounding counties, which aren't subject to a grading system.
Under the current system in Allegheny County, health inspectors record food safety violations during annual inspections but do not issue grades or scores.
Supporters of restaurant grades -- New York City launched a grading program for its some 24,000 eating establishments two years ago -- say the specter of having to hang a poor grade in the window is an effective way to spur restaurants to act quickly to fix serious health code violations.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has for years supported posting grades or scores at restaurants to help consumers make informed dining choices and encourage restaurants to strictly follow food safety rules.
But the center criticized the grading plan put forth by the Allegheny County health department last year as being too easy on restaurants.
"It seems like [the department's proposal] is designed to keep restaurants in a comfortable position rather than provide transparency for consumers," CSPI food safety attorney Sarah Klein said at the time after reviewing the plan.
The proposed scoring system was considerably more lenient than the one in New York, where for example, restaurants that score one critical violation cannot receive an A. Critical violations are the most serious type of problems that put people at risk for food-borne illnesses. (Restaurants in New York get a second chance to improve during a follow-up inspection before they must post a grade card.)
In contrast, under Allegheny County's scuttled plan, it would have been possible for restaurants to rack up a half-dozen critical violations and still earn an A.
If the board of health were to approve a new restaurant grading plan, it would be sent on to county council for consideration.
First Published July 12, 2012 12:00 am