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National Restaurant Association - Why health inspection scores may fail restaurants

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Why health inspection scores may fail restaurants

Los Angeles county officials recently determined the letter-grading process needed an overhaul. A 21-month review found the 17-year-old program allowed restaurants with critical violations at inspections to receive “A” grades.

In New York City, which adopted letter-grade inspections in 2010, 95 percent of the area’s 24,000 restaurants received “A” grades. Is that because restaurateurs are more adept at dealing with the inspection process or because they are violation-free?

According to the experts, current inspection systems create confusion among diners who don’t understand the significance of the scores and grades given, but refuse to eat at establishments that get what they consider unsatisfactory results.

Simple letter grades or scores based on subjective interpretations could give a false picture of a restaurant’s food safety status, said Mick Miklos, senior manager for the National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe food-safety programs. “As a result, that operation could be unfairly criticized, or conversely, the public could be given a false sense of security.”

Numerical scores, letter grades or color-coded signs don’t necessarily reflect whether violations, such as poor refrigeration, present a true health risk, or are noncritical violations, such as broken floor tiles, Miklos said. Inconsistencies among inspection forms and inspectors add to the confusion.

The scoring, grading and posting of inspection results is “just the pursuit of a single statistic describing an environment that prepares and serves food,” said NRA consultant Catherine Adams Hutt. But no single factor indicates risk. “What’s most important is the operator’s knowledge of how to keep food safe and his or her commitment to fixing things when they go wrong.”

Adams Hutt and Miklos represented the NRA at an Association of Food and Drug Officials debate on letter grading. Two panels of industry experts and regulators argued the pros and cons of letter grading and numerical scoring in June at the AFDO conference in Indianapolis.

“When a restaurant operator focuses on scores or grades, the goal is to get better numbers or grades,” Adams Hutt said. If an operator receives a score of 81, he or she might be happy next time with an 85. But the customer would be better off if the operator and health inspector both focused on the nature of the violation, why it happened and how it could be immediately corrected.

The public posting of grades or scores doesn’t help increase food safety or decrease the risk of foodborne illness, she noted. “There is no need to score inspections in order to drive corrective action,” she said. “Scoring systems can only have a positive impact on public health if they are found to reduce the risk factors associated with foodborne disease.”

Diann Worzalla, director of hotels and restaurants for Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation, said that performing a risk- or science-based inspection was more effective in preventing foodborne illness than letter-grade inspections.

“Letter-grade inspections don’t prevent foodborne illness outbreaks and are quite costly,” she said. Florida stopped using letter grades more than a decade ago and now uses science-based initiatives.

For example, the state bases the frequency of inspections of the level of risk to the public. Inspectors also use iPad technology to immediately post the results online.

The number of confirmed and suspected foodborne illness outbreaks in Florida’s 50,000-plus restaurants has decreased by 90 percent since those changes went into effect, she said. The state did that without adding staff or increasing fees.

Jurisdictions that use scoring systems without understanding their limitations can do a disservice to the public and the industry, Adams Hutt said. “If scoring is done, we need to effectively explain to consumers what the score means. Communication is a challenge, and no one is making this effort.”

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