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L.A.’s letter grades get ‘A’ in 10-year test of health audits

L.A.’s letter grades get ‘A’ in 10-year test of health audits

LOS ANGELES Spago in Beverly Hills, Calif., diners may or may not notice a conspicuously placed sign beside the door with a bright blue letter “A.” —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

The grade indicates that Spago scored a 90 or higher on its most recent restaurant inspection, a distinction now enjoyed by an overwhelming majority of the nearly 38,000 restaurants inspected routinely by Los Angeles County’s health department. —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

The county—by far the largest of a small but growing number of jurisdictions nationwide that require conspicuously posted grades to inform prospective patrons about restaurants’ health inspection results—recently issued a different kind of report card. —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

Earlier this month, the county released data indicating that its 10-year-old letter grade system had inspired a dramatic jump in the proportion of restaurants able to boast top marks and win favor with health-conscious diners. The data were cited by local media and by quoted consumers as evidence of a win-win for the dining public and restaurateurs. —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

What’s more, researchers have found a correlation between higher health inspections grades and sales increases at Los Angeles restaurants. And a three-year study published in 2005 in the Journal of Environmental Health concluded that the county’s grading system had contributed to a sustained 13-percent reduction in hospitalizations for foodborne illnesses. —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

Such findings suggest a strong possibility that more municipalities could take note of Los Angeles’ success with its grading system and consider similar approaches to inspection disclosure through public postings. —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

Grade-posting programs already are in use in several California counties as well as in Dallas and Louisville, Ky., and such states as North Carolina, South Carolina and Mississippi. A New York state lawmaker is pushing for adoption of a similar grading system there. —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

Los Angeles’ letter grade program was launched in 1997 in the wake of a high-profile scandal over chronic inspection lapses that provoked systemic reforms at the county agency responsible for restaurant sanitation and safety. Six months after the grading system was implemented, 39.9 percent of food sellers had earned A grades in their latest inspections. But by mid-2007, 82.5 percent of inspected facilities were earning the top grade, and the number of restaurants scoring lower than 70 dropped more than 98 percent to 0.2 percent—despite a substantial tightening of enforcement standards during the prior decade. —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

That means restaurants in all unincorporated areas of the county and the 77 of its 88 cities that are subject to county inspections now do a better job of compliance, and experts believe that’s because operators are motivated by the way public disclosure of health scores can affect the bottom line. —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

Phillip Leslie, a Stanford University economist who studied before-and-after indicators related to Los Angeles County’s grade program, examined quarterly sales tax reports and found that achieving an A increased the average restaurant’s revenues by 6 percent. A grade of B brought revenues up 1 percent to 2 percent, but a C caused revenues to drop an average of 1 percent. —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

In surveys conducted in cities where there is no public posting of restaurant inspection results, consumers say they don’t really care about them, Leslie explained. —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

“But people love these grade cards in Los Angeles,” he said, “and, clearly, restaurants can also benefit as well.” —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

Critics, however, say the challenges associated with restaurant inspections can be exacerbated by the sharing of overly simplified information with the general public. —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

Though letter grades, numeric scores and color codes can symbolize compliance, such systems don’t necessarily give an accurate picture of an establishment’s food safety practices, said Christine Andrew, the National Restaurant Association’s director of health and safety regulatory affairs. —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

A letter grade offers only a snapshot, she contends, while stressing that inspection and enforcement rules vary by jurisdiction. According to Andrew, some inspectors might give the same number of demerits for a chipped kitchen tile as for food kept at improper temperatures, and a letter grade won’t convey that level of detail. —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

“It’s a much more complicated and complex issue than that,” she said. —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

However, proponents argue that consumers are better served by even a simplified snapshot of health code compliance than by no external indication at all. —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

Restaurant inspection scores are public information, and anyone who makes a request can review a report. Some states require restaurant operators to post the reports in their establishments or to make them available to diners who ask, though operators say few diners ever do. The routine posting of inspection results on health departments’ websites also has become increasingly common. —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

Inspection reports, however, are not always easy to read for the average layman, proponents of letter grades point out, and an A, B or C posting in the front window of a restaurant gives consumers immediate information that may help them decide whether to dine there. —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

After studying the program in Los Angeles, Leslie became a believer in public disclosure. In San Francisco, he and a partner last year created a website called CleanScores that they plan to make a national database of restaurants’ inspection histories, in an easy-to-understand format. —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

Established after a proposed letter grade system in San Francisco was rejected after the restaurant industry there opposed it, CleanScores currently posts results from San Francisco and Los Angeles, though Leslie plans to expand the database to 10 major restaurant markets within the year. —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

CleanScores may use letter grades at some point, but Leslie’s goal is to offer more detail than such grades typically allow. —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

At some point, CleanScores will reconfigure its data to conform to inspection standards recommended by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, enabling consumers to make apples-to-apples comparisons across jurisdictions. —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

New York City, for example, has a zero-based scoring system in which restaurants pass if they have fewer than 28 points. In Los Angeles, 90 to 100 is the requirement for an A, and operators are graded on numerous criteria listed on a four-page inspection sheet—compared with the half-page checklist used by inspectors there 10 years ago. —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

CleanScores highlights consistently top-scoring and low-scoring restaurants. Among the places that have been included in that latter group is the historic Original Joe’s in San Francisco. Before it was closed temporarily last year after a fire, the restaurant scored a 79, with major violations for improperly cleaned kitchen surfaces and lesser demerits for empty soap dispensers, lack of towels and unclean equipment. —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

Frank Klein, a spokesman for Original Joe’s, said the CleanScores website doesn’t note that the restaurant was revisited several months later and scored an 86. “Our building is 85 years old and the restaurant is 70 years old,” Klein said, claiming that managers of Original Joe’s “can’t possibly get the highest scores unless they upgrade their facilities.” —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

However, Klein, a partner in the recently opened San Francisco restaurant Fish & Farm, supports the idea of transparency. —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

“These websites, while not perfect, do open up dialogue, and these things are positive,” he said. “Now you see a lot of ethnic restaurants in particular boasting about their scores.” —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

Bakersfield, Calif., deli operator Jeff Simpson notes in local advertising that his three Sequoia Sandwich Co. units have A grades from Kern County inspectors, who implemented their posting requirement last July. Simpson said letter grades “still leave consumers in the dark on details,” but let diners make a judgment about a restaurant’s cleanliness and safety. —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

“I don’t know if people can tell if a B means there were violations that might get someone sick,” he said. “But it’s a nightmare if you don’t get an A.” —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

In San Diego County, whose pioneering letter grade system dates back to 1947, a C grade for scores of 79 or less actually is a failing grade. Of the 7,000 inspected foodservice facilities there, fewer than 1 percent get a C, and more than 90 percent earn an A, said Liz Pozzebon, chief environmental health specialist with San Diego County’s Department of Environmental Health. —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

A key to any letter grade program is the education of operators that comes with it, Pozzebon said, explaining that good grades come easily once restaurants have the proper procedures in place. —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

A survey of diners in San Diego County last June showed that most look for a letter A at the door of any restaurant. Anything less than an A might result in a change of dining plans. —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

“It’s about public awareness,” Pozzebon said, “but it’s also an incentive for restaurants to comply with the code.” —When walking into Wolfgang Puck’s iconic

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