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Restaurant Report Card

Those ubiquitous letter grades at L.A. County food places are tough to miss. Here's a look at what the grading system means to consumers. Our Health

October 09, 2000|JONATHAN FIELDING and VALERIE ULENE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you look at the front window or door of any restaurant in most parts of Los Angeles County, you'll find a white sign bearing a capital letter or a number. This is the "grade" the restaurant received during a surprise inspection by a county health officer. Every restaurant in cities that have passed ordinances for grading is required to post this sign. The grade shows potential customers how well the establishment is following rules and regulations that protect the public against food-borne illness.

Unlike the judgments of restaurant critics, the grades given by county health inspectors are based on an objective point system, with 100 being a perfect score. Upscale restaurants don't always score higher. A hole-in-the-wall hot-dog stand can earn an A; an expensive dinner spot a C.

A final score of 90 points or more suggests generally superior food handling and maintenance practices, and earns an A for the restaurant. A final score of 80 to 89 gets a B; a grade of C is given for a score of 70% to 79%. Restaurants that receive a score of 69 points or lower are not assigned a letter grade. Instead, they are given a window card that reflects the actual numerical score received. A score of less than 70 suggests that food handling practices and general maintenance are poor, although not an immediate threat to public health.

Every restaurant starts the inspection with 100 points, and each violation discovered by the inspector results in a deduction. Violations that pose a very high risk of food-borne illness cause the restaurant to lose more points than violations with a low risk. For example, inadequately cooked food costs the restaurant six points; food handlers without proper hair restraints cost only one.

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If, at the time of an inspection, the environmental health officer believes that conditions at a restaurant pose an immediate danger to the public's health or safety, the restaurant will be temporarily closed unless the problem can be remedied immediately. Such conditions can include an infestation of cockroaches or rodents, lack of water that is safe for consumption, or water insufficiently hot to sanitize dishes and utensils. Restaurants can also be closed if they have serious violations on repeated inspections or if they score below 70% more than twice in a year. When a restaurant is closed, a notice of closure is posted on the entrance door stating the reason for closure.

If you would like more detailed information about any restaurant you are visiting in Los Angeles County, ask an employee for a copy of the official inspection report. This report lists every violation identified, and restaurants are required to make it available to the public upon request.

Section I of the report lists violations associated with the greatest health risk, such as an active infestation of rodents or cockroaches and the failure of food handlers to wash their hands as required. Each violation category in this section results in a six-point deduction.

Violation categories listed in Section II are considered slightly less serious and result in a four-point penalty. These include the use of improper thawing methods, preparation of food with bare hands, improper storage of food, and the serving of leftover food from one customer to another.

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The risk of food-borne illness is even lower with violations in Section III, which cost the restaurant only one point. Examples of these violations include animals in the food facility, inadequate ventilation, and dirty walls, ceilings or floors. If you choose to review a restaurant's inspection report, you will find the most important information about violations on the first page in sections I, II and III.

The county's grading system applies not only to restaurants, but to all retail food establishments including markets, bakeries, warehouses and the retail sections of food processors. Even food court vendors are routinely inspected and must post the assigned grade or score. Routine, unannounced inspections are performed two to four times a year.

The grading system was started to improve protection of consumers against dangerous food-handling and food-serving practices. If consumers patronize restaurants and food retailers with high grades more than those with low scores, this system can also be a powerful tool for motivating these establishments to maintain high health standards. The process appears to be working: Since it was introduced in 1998, the percentage of A grades has increased substantially, while the proportion of businesses receiving lower scores or being closed has fallen.

A complete listing of restaurant closures and food establishment grades can be found at http://www.lapublichealth.org/eh. (Note: Long Beach, Pasadena and Vernon inspect their own retail food establishments, and those results do not appear on this site.)

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Dr. Jonathan Fielding is the director of public health and the health officer for the L.A. County Department of Health Services. Dr. Valerie Ulene is a board-certified specialist in preventive medicine practicing in L.A. They're at ourhealth@dhs.co.la.ca.us. Their column runs on the second and fourth Mondays of the month.

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