Annals of Bad Ideas: Letter Grades For Restaurants
Come with us now as we venture into that dark and sad place where politicians try to win votes by latching on to ideas that sound great, even if turning those ideas into law would actually diminish a community's quality of life.
Today's example: The proposal, being presented to the D.C. Council today by council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), to change the city's health inspection system so restaurants would receive letter grades on their compliance with food safety and health requirements. Businesses would have to post their A, B, C or worse in their front windows, a practice that's been around in Los Angeles for a decade or so.
The health nuts are driving this train, making a good case that the results of restaurant inspections in many cities are poorly communicated to the dining public. The Center for Science in the Public Interest singles out the District for its consumer-unfriendly policy of requiring Joe Citizen to file a Freedom of Information Act request to see inspection reports that ought to be posted on the web for all to review.
But from that helpful point, the activists and now Cheh leap to the idea that posting a scarlet letter in the front window of a restaurant is the proper and effective way to push restaurateurs to do business in a clean and safe manner. Not a whole lot of customers are likely to visit eateries with a big fat B or C in the front window when there's some other place sporting a sweet A. But let's be honest--what are the odds that your D.C. health inspectors will have made a rigorous, fair and straightforward check of the restaurant in question and will have scored the checklist accurately and shown decent judgment in determining which violations really matter and which don't?
The L.A. system might make sense if citizens had great confidence in their government's ability to inspect restaurants fairly, and if the scarlet letter were applied in a way that took into account the differences in resources available to a high-end white tablecloth restaurant and a cheap neighborhood dive. Can anyone claim to believe the District is equipped to create a system that would demonstrate a discerning intelligence?
New York City announced over the weekend that it is adopting the L.A. letter grades system, which will be phased in over the next two years, along with a sharp increase in the number of inspectors the city fields around town. New York's mayor argues that cities that use letter grades have seen improved health conditions, fewer food-related illnesses, and better business at eateries that score top grades.
Ya think? Obviously, an A restaurant will win some customers from the C across the street. But what if the C place is really the cleaner place but just happens to have flunked on some of the unbelievably arcane rules contained in, for example, Los Angeles's 70-page list of rules restaurants must follow? (And forgive me for asking, but what if that C eatery has both better food and a more pleasant atmosphere?) And what home kitchen would qualify for an A, or even a B?
Luckily, there are places that are resisting this rush to letter grades. In Orange County, L.A.'s neighbor, a move to extend letter grades into that sprawling suburb was rejected when county supervisors noted that their own system makes more sense: If a restaurant flunks inspection, it gets closed down until it can prove it has fixed the situation. Orange County posts detailed reports on each inspection on its web site for all to see.
Food inspectors are essential and there aren't enough of them--witness the peanut scandal of recent days. But a fair and useful system would depend more on transparency than on the blunt instrument of letter grades that may not represent anything more than the misdeeds of a single vindictive, corrupt or incompetent inspector. Is there a D.C. resident who cannot imagine that their city might be home to such an inspector?
What say you? Letter grades, or an open and honest system in which the full text of every inspection report is posted online so any diner can judge whether a report is fair and right, and any restaurateur can respond to the city's conclusions.
By Marc Fisher |
February 3, 2009; 7:57 AM ET
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