The Center For Science In The Public Interest, an advocacy group that has tangled with the food service industry before over menu nutrition labeling, is pushing for letter grades of restaurant’s latest health inspections to be posted in the front window.
The grade works on a 100-point scale and corresponds with a restaurant’s score: 90-100 being an A, etc. A city councilwoman in Washington, D.C. has been pushing for a city ordinance requiring restaurants to display their letter grade, and her efforts have created some controversy in the food service industry.
Restaurants, led by the National Restaurant Association (NRA), point out that health inspections are not consistent from state to state or even city to city, making a grading system less reliable. They also worry that restaurants who have had long records of cleanliness might suffer or even go out of business as a result of one bad day with the health inspector.
Yet some cities have already instituted a posted letter grade system, with good results. New York City is the most recent convert. Their letter grade system was instituted in March of this year. Las Vegas, St. Louis, and Los Angeles also have similar systems. In New York, restaurateur concerns about losing business have been addressed by allowing establishments to appeal a bad grade and are given a grace period to clean up their act before a bad grade is actually posted.
In Los Angeles, which has the longest-running food safety letter grade system, the local health department has found that hospital visits due to food poisoning have dropped 20 percent in the 11 years since their letter grade system was established. Nationally, 76 million people are sickened by foodborne illnesses every year, and 40% of those can be traced to restaurants.
Los Angeles eateries with an “A” grade also saw a 6% increase in sales, tying good food safety practices with real revenue instead of fear of the health inspector.
Restaurant health inspections remain difficult for consumers to obtain in many U.S. cities, and making them available is running hurdles much larger than industry opposition: budget cuts in health departments across the country has made it more difficult to institute letter grading systems. Many health departments have been forced to cut staff, and do not have the funds to build the infrastructure required to support a letter grade system.
Regardless, the coming years will see a steady improvement in the availability of health inspection reports, whether through a letter grade system or through online archives on health department websites. Rather than resisting the coming changes, the food service industry would do well to get out ahead of this issue and focus on making the grade every time.
This will surely result in higher expenses for restaurants already operating on razor thin margins. But the statistics show that foodborne illness can be reduced significantly when health inspection information is made public, and the time has come to give consumers the information they demand and well deserve.