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Allegheny County Council Votes Down Restaurant Grading System

Allegheny County Council on Tuesday voted down a proposal to change the way the results of restaurant health inspections are communicated to the public.

The proposal would have tied existing narrative reports to number and letter grades, ranging from A to C, and posted those letter grades in conspicuous locations at the restaurant or food service site.

Only Councilman John Palmiere, chair of the Committee on Health and Human Services, voted in favor of the legislation.

Council members cited concerns about objectivity and standards being consistently applied, as well as potential negative effects on small businesses. Councilwoman Sue Means referenced a letter she received from the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association, which said the change could cost the city up to $1.4 million. Several members of Council said that money would be better spent hiring more inspectors and requiring more rigorous training.

Kevin Joyce is owner of the Carlton Restaurant downtown and government affairs chair for the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association. He said his group lobbied against the proposal.

“Distinguishing between the guy that gets an 89 and a B grade and the guy that gets a 90 and gets an A on their door, we don’t really think that’s fair to the operators,” Joyce said. “It really doesn’t do the consumer much good either.”

But Health Department Director Dr. Karen Hacker said there have been some positive effects from similar grading systems. She cited a study published in the American Journal of Public Health in March that showed a 35 percent increase in the number of New York City restaurants receiving an A grade three years after a similar letter grade system was put in place as compared to three years before the system was implemented.

“This type of program does incentivize the food industry, the food systems to up their game, and to improve,” Hacker said.

The same study found that 91 percent of New Yorkers approved of the program and 88 percent considered letter grades in their dining choices.

But that’s just the problem, according to Joyce. He worried that even small infractions could lead to fewer customers for small business owners.

“In many cases, the only difference might be whether one paper towel dispenser in a kitchen was empty at the time,” Joyce said. “In other words, there are a lot of one point violations that are the difference between an A and a B and they really have nothing to do with food safety.”

Hacker said the board of health tried to address that concern by striking a bargain with restaurant owners, so that they would have to have at least three one-point infractions in different safety categories in order to begin to accrue points for those infractions.

“We listened to the restaurant folks saying that they were very concerned about these one-point issues, that they didn’t feel that they were related to food safety,” Hacker said. “Our compromise was to say, we understand that, but at the same time if you have all of these things, we need to tell the customer about that.”

Hacker said it’s now up to the county board of health if they want to re-work the proposal and bring it to County Council for another vote in the future.

Liz Reid began working at WESA in 2013 as a general assignment reporter and weekend host. Since then, she’s worked as the Morning Edition producer, health & science reporter and as an editor.