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S.B. County OKs Plan for Rating Eateries

In unincorporated areas, inspectors' grades must be posted. Cities can choose to opt in.

June 09, 2004|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

Despite ardent opposition from restaurant owners, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to adopt a letter grading system for eateries in the county's unincorporated areas similar to the system used in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego counties.

The system will give restaurants "A," "B" or "C" grades on publicly posted placards to reflect a health inspection score. Because supervisors have authority only over the county's unincorporated areas, the new system does not apply to cities. The county's 24 cities could adopt the letter grade system or continue with the current inspection program that doesn't require that the grade be posted.

Under the system, "A" grades will be given to restaurants with few, if any, violations; "B" grades will go to those with minor violations; and "C" grades will be for restaurants that must correct serious violations or face closure.

The board voted 4 to 1 to adopt the system despite protest from half a dozen restaurant owners and others who said letter grades give customers the wrong impression about the quality of a restaurant's food. They argued that a restaurant that receives a "B" grade for minor health and safety violations can lose customers who assume the restaurant has been penalized for serious food safety violations.

"When you are considering this, consider the businesses as well as the customers," Steven Shaw, a spokesman for Mimi's Cafe, a California-based restaurant chain with 80 restaurants in several states, urged the board.

The system is scheduled to be launched in mid-September. It would affect about 1,000 restaurants and markets that serve ready-to-eat food in the county's unincorporated areas.

The letter grading system was championed by Supervisor Paul Biane, who said he routinely asks restaurant managers for a copy of their health inspection reports but often is refused, even though restaurants are required by law to make the report available upon request.

The county inspects restaurants twice a year to determine whether they meet minimum standards for food safety and sanitation. The county does not require them to post signs reflecting the outcome of the inspection. Restaurants that fail are closed until problems are corrected.

Health officials in Riverside and San Diego counties say the grading systems they have used since the late 1940s help improve food safety.

Los Angeles County's grading system was launched in 1998, and a study concluded that food-related illnesses fell by 13% during its the first year, while rising 3.2% in other parts of the state

Under the San Bernardino County ordinance, the inspection will be based on a 100-point scale, with 100 points indicating a perfect score. An "A" grade will reflect an inspection score of 90 or better, "B" from 80 to 89, and "C" from 70 to 79. A restaurant with a "C" grade will have 10 days to correct violations or face closure. The first inspection after a "C" grade is free.

A restaurant owner who wants to improve a low inspection score can also request a re-inspection within 10 days but must pay a fee, which will vary based on an hourly rate of $52.

At the request of Supervisor Clifford Young, the board also voted to create a fund to provide loans for "mom and pop" restaurants that can't afford the re-inspection fee.

Public Health Director James Felten said recent inspection scores indicate that about 70% of the 6,700 restaurants in the county would earn an "A" grade and 20% would get a "B" grade.

County health officials had offered supervisors the alternative of adopting an evaluation system that would give restaurants either a "pass" or "fail" placard to post. A restaurant would have had to score at least 80 points to get a passing placard. One that scored 79 points or lower would have been given 10 days to correct the violations.

Restaurant owners urged the board to adopt the "pass/fail" alternative, saying it would not frighten customers away from restaurants that are guilty of only minor violations.

Chuck Keagle, founder of the Cask 'n' Cleaver chain, said he worries that the grading system may become subjective and that customers will put too much stock in the "A" grades. He said many restaurants may lose business because of the grades.

"We are just beginning to recover from a difficult economic time," he told the board.

Supervisor Bill Postmus voted against the letter grading system, saying he also fears the grading system would hurt those restaurants that fail to get an "A" grade but continue to provide high-quality food.

But Biane rejected those suggestions. He said he hopes the grading system will create an incentive for restaurant owners to correct all potential health violations. Restaurateurs who get an "A" will be rewarded with more customers, he said.

"The argument that this system would hurt business ... I'm not buying that."

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