Grading restaurants and bars

Our view: Scoring venues for cleanliness has worked elsewhere, and it's a good idea for Baltimore

October 03, 2012

A proposal to require restaurants and bars to post letter grades rating their performance in city health inspections has some business owners worried they may lose customers if inspectors give their establishments a less than perfect score. But giving people access to information that allows them to judge how food and beverage venues stack up against each other in terms of cleanliness has worked in other cities, and there's no reason consumers here shouldn't be able to make the same sort of comparisons.

The measure, which has the support of the City Council and the mayor's office, would authorize the city Health Department to draw up criteria for a grading system for restaurants and bars and post the results in an online database. New York City has had such a system since 2009, and consumers there generally have found the information useful in making decisions about which venues to patronize. A similar system is in effect in Los Angeles.

Restaurant and bar owners, however, posit that the information can be misleading for consumers who have little understanding of how the industry works. They say it may even give consumers a false sense of concern about what goes on behind kitchen doors if they interpret it to mean that conditions at one establishment are unsanitary. Not every violation is directly related to cleanliness, they say, and anything less than an "A" doesn't necessarily mean that food and beverages are unsafe.

A dripping, dented can of tomato paste or loose refrigerator seal, for example, could count as violations and result in a less than perfect score even in an otherwise spotless kitchen. Moreover, depending on the complexity of the grading system employed, there are often more than enough different types of violations inspectors can cite to make the grading process at least partly subjective.

New York, which has the most stringent grading system in the country, for example, lists more than 1,000 grading points on its schedule of potential violations, and inspectors only need cite 33 of them to shut a business down. To get an "A" grade" a venue must have fewer than 13 violation points, and the maximum for a "B" grade is 23. The lowest grade in the system is a "C," which requires owners to have no more than 32 violations to stay in business. In Los Angeles, there are only 100 points in the system and venues are scored "A," "B" and "C" on the same scale used on students' report cards.

Restaurant industry spokesmen also have a point in arguing that either a bar or restaurant meets a certain standard of public health and safety or it doesn't and that making distinctions between different levels of cleanliness will only force owners to spend money on cosmetic fixes that have no bearing on whether the foods and beverages offered are safe.

That's one way of looking at it, although the implementation of letter grades in New York hasn't seemed to dampen patrons' enthusiasm for the city's legendary restaurant and bar scene, nor has it prompted a wave of closings among eating and drinking establishments. Some owners there have encountered problems involving the reinspection process that requires restaurants and bars to pay fines for any new violations inspectors discover when they revisit a venue to clear a previous citation. Business owners here should work with the city to draft a system that clearly defines the process for resolving such situations, and they should be part of the development of the system from the beginning.

But letter grades can only enhance Baltimore's reputation as a lively destination for eating and drinking. They give consumers more information about the caliber of the venues they patronize, and if they prompt restaurants to compete on cleanliness, so much the better.

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