The Times-Herald reports that a good meal at a great restaurant, a good grade in a tough class: These are two rather satisfying moments in our lives. And the two, put together, could be a superb way to notify restaurant diners of an eatery’s cleanliness and safe food preparation practices.
A posted letter grade from health officials of an A, B, or C on the front window of every restaurant in Solano County is a system we may well want to adopt from counties down south.
Sunday’s “Front & Center” article detailed Solano County Environmental Health Department’s restaurant inspection system that tries to safeguard consumers from a dangerous dose or excruciating bout of food poisoning.
Knowing there is a health inspection system in place in this country and county gives diners a feeling of security when they sit down and order up.
But there is more consumers need to know.
While there is a state standard for notifying the public of an eatery’s latest health inspection report, it’s rather basic.
The state requires a restaurant to post a sign telling diners a copy of its health inspection report is available if they’d like to see it. You can imagine that most diners neither see the sign nor take the extra step to view anything more than the menu.
Any county, however, is free to toughen its own standards, and some have done so with great success.
Most intriguing, and well worth consideration here, are the grading systems Orange, San Diego, San Bernardino, Riverside and Monterey counties have in place.
A recent Solano County Grand Jury report held up the San Diego grading system – in place since 1947 – as a model to be mirrored.
Studies show that once a posted grading system is put in place, restaurants snap to attention to ensure that whenever an unannounced health inspector shows up, all safety and cleanliness guidelines are being met.
The California counties with posted grades report that more than 80 percent of their restaurants score As, with San Diego and Riverside reporting that about 90 percent earn As.
A 2003 Stanford University study notes that Los Angeles saw 13 percent fewer cases of food poisoning during its first year with grades, with higher revenues reported from restaurants displaying an “A.”
Putting a grading system in place is no simple matter, as Napa County has discovered this past year.
Napa has been grading restaurants since April 2004, but the grades are not posted. Rather, they’re available by request should any diner ask to see the health inspection reports.
Even those non-displayed grades have improved Napa restaurants’ overall performance.
Before letter grades were noted in the health reports – instead of merely written statements of violations – some 60 percent of local restaurants would have scored high enough to earn an A, Environmental Management Coordinator Ruben Oropeza has said.
A year after letter grades appeared on the forms, that number is said to be up to 72 percent.
To make a good thing even better, Napa supervisors began discussions this past year to post those grades.
Then the political battles began.
A staunch opponent to posted grades is St. Helena Chamber of Commerce CEO Rex Stults.
According to local newspaper reports, Stults told the Napa supervisors the plan is “preposterous.”
“We shouldn’t be making it harder for our restaurants to make a living,” he is quoted as telling the Napa board.
“Ninety-five percent of our restaurants are scoring As or Bs. Where’s the problem? Is a B a bad grade? … The difference between a B and an A grade could mean thousands of dollars in lost business.”
The goal here, however, is consumer choice and awareness.
Profit margins are not the issue. They are the result.
One of the most powerful opponents to posted grades is the California Restaurant Association.
Its biggest opposition is that the grade comes from a single inspection.
It prefers a grade that comes from several inspections – a compilation grade over time.
That argument is easily countered by another group, the nonprofit Safe Tables Our Priority restaurant watchdogs.
“Your (restaurant owner’s) bad day doesn’t equal a customer’s bad day if that customer gets sick (from food poisoning),” spokeswoman Donna Rosenbaum told staff writer Greg Moberly.
Few changes come without controversy, but we agree with the grand jury that posted grades on local restaurants makes sense.
Wouldn’t you like to know that your steak dinner has received an “A” in health?
Or that those luscious enchiladas have earned notas buenas?
Or that you can safely say “hai” to that glorious plate of grade “A” sushi?
The final thing a restaurant diner does before leaving a restaurant is leave a tip. We have a different sort of tip for restaurant owners: Letting consumers know how you stand in the critical area of health standards should not be something you fear. Rather, maintaining high standards is in your best interest. If, for example, 90 percent of San Diego County’s restaurants have A ratings, 10 percent of their B and C competitors are likely losing business.
As they should be.