Even Fancy Restaurants Get Failing Grades

August 13, 2008 06:26 AM
by Rachel Balik
Based on a new report, a watchdog agency is urging restaurants to put inspection grades in windows, because many have copious violations.

Report Urges Restaurants to Clean up Their Acts

Let the gourmet beware: a fine dining experience doesn’t always mean a fine report from food inspectors. An early August study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) looked at reports from 30 restaurants in 20 cities and found that in many, the mold wasn’t limited to the cheese. A shocking 26 percent of restaurants prepared food on unclean surfaces, and 13 percent had rodent infestations. Nearly a quarter of restaurants failed to store food at safe temperatures. And of course, all of these restaurants are serving customers every day and don’t run much risk of being shut down. “Restaurants only have the incentive to do what they need to do to stay open,” CSPI attorney Sarah Klein explains. “The consumer would never know how close they were to being shut down.” Unfortunately, 41 percent of food-related illness is incurred at restaurants, and customers would do well to be aware of that.

Based on its findings, the CSPI is now calling for all restaurants to make information about inspections available to the public. Klein says, “If you can walk by a restaurant and see which credit cards it takes and whether Zagat recommends them, then you should also be able to see how the local health authority rates them.”

The CSPI’s official recommendation is that all restaurants should put a letter grade in their window. With this system, A, B, C and D would correspond to the number (from 1–100) that a restaurant had received from an inspector. In Los Angeles, restaurants are obligated to put information about health standards in the window. Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of public health for Los Angeles County reported, “the results of our grading system in Los Angeles have been very positive, with improved restaurant sanitary practices, reduced rates of severe food-borne illness, and high consumer confidence in this key public health regulatory system.” Right now, inspection reports are not readily available in most cities. CSPI reported that some restaurants delayed up to six months before finally submitting their inspection information. Some cities require restaurants to keep their reports on site and provide them upon request; but in Washington, DC and Pittsburgh, customers must file written requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

Background: Public perception of restaurant safety

Since inspection results are generally inaccessible to the public, people eating at restaurants often assume that restaurants are safe, just because they haven’t been shut down. A survey conducted by the Tennessee Department of Health showed that most adults have no idea just how infrequently restaurants actually get inspected. The correct answer is twice a year, meaning that to stay open, a restaurant needs only to avert disaster on two out of every 365 days. The consumers who eat out several times a week probably have a better idea of what’s going on than inspectors do, but many of them are oblivious, assuming that restaurants are being closely monitored once a month. Dr. Timothy F. Jones of the Tennessee Department of Health and Vanderbilt University School of Medicine concluded that “consumers have a number of misconceptions and unrealistically high expectations of the restaurant-inspection system.”

Reference: Restaurant grading, food safety and choosing restaurants


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