Monday, July 25, 2016

We may be seeing fewer ‘A’s” in the windows of our favorite LA County eateries starting in January of 2017.

It’s a fact that a restaurant can be shut down by the health department for a serious health violation, such as a vermin infestation or a lack of hot water and still retain their ‘A’ grade. A restaurant can similarly be cited with two major violations, such as unsafe food temperatures or cross-contamination (a 4-point deduction for each violation) and still achieve an ‘A’ rating. Situations like these have fed a growing public perception that the letter grade posted may not reflect actual conditions inside the restaurant.

Based on public responses to an online survey and a review of data collected over the course of nearly two years, the LA County Health Department is making some recommendations which they anticipate will improve the county’s grading methods, optimize restaurant inspections and provide more information to the public about the restaurants’ conditions.

Included in the recommendations, which will be enforced sometime in early 2017:

  • If a restaurant is closed for a cockroach, rodent or fly infestation, sewage problems or for not having any water running through the facility, it will lose an additional seven points for the closure.
  • If two major health hazards, such as unsafe food temperatures, are observed, the facility will lose an additional three points in its inspection score.
  • If a restaurant is closed and is also marked down for two major health code violations, it will only lose the seven points for the closure.

This means that from 2017 on, any restaurant closure means an automatic loss in grade status.

“It’s important for the credibility of the program,” said Terri Williams, acting director of the county Department of Public Health’s environmental health division, referring to the changes. “You want the public to know when they go into a restaurant that has an A in the window that the restaurant truly earned that A.”

The survey that was posted on the Health Department’s website and focused on five questions:

  • Is a restaurant’s grade considered prior to eating out?
    85% said yes
  • Does the patron look for the letter grade when arriving at the restaurant?
    93% do look for the grade
  • Is the score (not just the grade) important?
    70% want to see the actual score
  • Is the date of the inspection important?
    75% said yes
  • Would the patron be interested in additional data about the restaurant’s
    history with the health department?
    50% of the respondents said yes

These responses have prompted another change; the county will begin issuing new health grade cards this summer that will show the public the date of a food facility’s last graded inspection. Later on, a QR code will be added to the cards to provide more information about facilities’ inspection history. Using their smartphones, a prospective patron or any user will be taken to a dashboard that will show past inspection scores, a summary of the health code violations observed, and, potentially, a comparison of like restaurants in the area. The QR code is already being used successfully in some of the neighboring areas, such as Vernon, Pasadena and Ventura County.

“A lot of these decisions are based on data,” Terri Williams said, adding that when the department invested in the software that tracks the data, health officials realized the system would provide them the information they needed to make improvements. “This is just the beginning. We’re still in the process of designing it. Whatever trend analyses the department comes up with will not only help the public make decisions about where to eat, it will also help health officials and restaurant operators understand and improve upon their specific food safety challenges.”

As a 3rd party inspection service, one of the complaints that we are consistently confronted with by owner/managers is the inconsistency with which regulations are enforced across the county. The perception is that there is too much subjectivity applied in evaluating adherence to regulatory codes. (Of course, they don’t complain when it works in their favor.)

I am curious (and hopeful) to see if these recommendations will help change the perceptions of not only the operators but also of the public at large.

Michael Cummings is Vice President of The A Specialist, the largest independent company in Southern California specializing in the cleaning and compliance needs of food preparation facilities.

Author: Michael Cummings