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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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Whenever there's some proposal for how to do something regulatory in DC, I'm always tempted to look at how Arlington or Virginia does it.

In this case, I think Arlington does it just right. All inspection reports are posted online soon after the inspection is performed. The critical violations are flagged, and there is a search tool that allows you to find a restaurant you frequent.

The only way it could become easier is if it had an RSS feed or some other Web 2.0 feature allowing people to keep abreast without constantly rechecking the site.

Also, with posting letter grades, I'm expecting this:

, except with "GO CAPS!"


Posted by: perkinsms | February 3, 2009 9:25 AM

The system should really be pass/fail. I can't say that if I'm out in Alexandria (or whatever) and I see two italian places across the street, one with an A and one with a C, the one with A would be 'that much' better. I would look at other reviews online or the menu.

Posted by: aaronw1 | February 3, 2009 11:30 AM


Can you clarify briefly? Are you saying that this is a bad idea in DC because the health inspectors are incompetent and the health code nonsensical? If these two problems were solved, would you be in favor of the idea?

Posted by: Wallenstein | February 3, 2009 11:48 AM

I grew up in a mostly rural part of North Carolina, and as long as I can remember, the state has required restaurants to post the grade (letter and number) in plain sight. Once a month, the local newspaper would print a list of the few restaurants that scored less than an A. There were a few habitual offenders that everyone knew to avoid, but if the local Pizza Hut got a B, then folks knew to avoid it until they fixed their problems.

When I moved to Maryland, I was somewhat uncomfortable walking into a restaurant and not knowing how it was graded. As long as rules aren't arbitrarily enforced, grades should be posted for patrons to see; you have to do something pretty bad to get knocked down to a B. Clean restaurants can display it proudly, and it will give scofflaws incentive to clean up their act.

Posted by: nuttyturnip | February 3, 2009 12:08 PM

Just check out their bathrooms. If they have filthy bathrooms, the kitchens are worse.

But I agree with Marc. Sounds like a terrific idea. But DC isn't capable of doing a system like this fairly or accurately.

Posted by: HillMan | February 3, 2009 12:14 PM

perkinsms said everything I wanted to say. ...all the way down to the Fail post.

So all I can say is that I second his comment.

Posted by: gmart68b | February 3, 2009 12:33 PM

DC = Nanny state.

Mr. Obama, please pull the DC Voting Rights bill off the table if this bill and the one regarding snow on cars passes.

Posted by: bs2004 | February 3, 2009 12:35 PM

For Wallenstein:

Sure, in a perfect world, with a rock-solid inspection system that was transparent enough that residents routinely checked the city's web site for readily comprehensible and useful info on restaurant inspections, a letter grade might be a convenient shorthand. But even then, I'd have reservations: Can a restaurant's dedication to cleanliness really be summed up in a single letter? Should there be different expectations for a neighborhood carry-out run by a family vs. a high-end restaurant with a staff in the dozens? Wouldn't a narrative inspection report tell diners a whole lot more than a single letter? Why not post that full report on the web for all to see? After all, we paid for the inspection, which is meant to serve our safety and confidence.

Posted by: Marc Fisher | February 3, 2009 1:00 PM

Marc Fisher, I normally agree with your columns, but you really lost me on this one. Agree that the DC government is incompetent at best and generally corrupt, but that's no reason to not list a letter grade as many other jurisdictions do.

Certainly, good grades might be false information, but bad grades should be a red flag, particularly given the incompetence and corruption.

Your characterization of supporters of this as "health nuts" was unfortunate, and off-base. Suspect that most of these people are nanny staters and germophobes. "Health nuts" generally means the tofu crowd, who will basically eat quite dubious food as long as it's stamped "organic" or is alleged to have health benefits.

"And what home kitchen would qualify for an A, or even a B?" Probably none of them, because they don't have stainless steel counters and all-plastic cutting boards as is required in commercial kitchens. A cheap shot, and an embarrassing revelation that you are really, really out of your area of expertise on this one.

Posted by: kayak23225 | February 3, 2009 1:36 PM

Restaurant sanitation is almost universally disgraceful. If customers saw the atrocities that happened in most kitchens, no one would eat out.

I support any measure that encourages restaurants achieve more than a "minimum passing grade" in sanitation.

Posted by: DupontJay | February 3, 2009 2:51 PM

Can we hang signs around council members' necks with a letter grade for all to see?

Posted by: fjc33 | February 3, 2009 3:20 PM

A restaurant should either pass or fail. It's clean or it's not. If a restaurant wants to be super-diligent and create a sterile kitchen, then they can advertise the Howard Hughes Seal of Approval.

Posted by: MStreet1 | February 3, 2009 3:44 PM


First, not all violations are created equal. Health inspectors are trained to identify those violations that are most dangerous to the public health. Those violations are weighted more heavily on an inspection report than are the “arcane” violations you mention. A restaurant with several critical violations would not receive a higher letter grade than a restaurant with a dozen minor violations—because the danger of those very few critical violations is so much greater.

Second, within the white of “Open” and the black of “Closed” is a range of grey: some violations that require immediate attention (no hot water in the employee handwashing sink) and those that need attention but less critically (chef is drinking from a soda can during food prep). Thus a restaurant may have violations that would garner something lower than an “A” but not low enough for closure—and a consumer has a right to know that.

Third, posting an inspection report without an easy-to-understand summary of the results is about as useful as a doctor handing you a lab report without telling you what it means: you might identify some of the more common terms, but you could miss the most dangerous ones.

Fourth, right now, a poor inspection report (that does not result in closure) is the hidden shame of the restaurateur. Why is that? I am a taxpayer, who paid for the inspection. I am a consumer, who pays for the food, and expects it to be safe. So shouldn’t I know before I step into that establishment that the health official charged with checking thinks this restaurant is barely above average? Or excellent?

Finally, please don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Yes, the entire inspection system needs to be overhauled. More inspectors need to be hired, and the program needs to be modernized. But until that happens, consumers deserve to be given easy access to the results of inspections. Not online, where they have to search before going out. Not by mail, where they’d have to make a dining decision months in advance. But in the window, as they decide where to spend their restaurant dollars.

Sarah Klein
Staff Attorney, Center for Science in the Public Interest

Posted by: seaklein | February 3, 2009 4:16 PM

I think Marc is saying that black people are too stupid to properly inspect a restaurant.

Posted by: logan9 | February 4, 2009 6:37 AM

Aren't many of the inspectors for DC restaurants on the take? How can they be trusted?

Over the past 6mos my girlffriend and and I have been lucky enough to get kitchen tours of 2 of the restaurants Tom has given 4 stars to DC. Having worked in restaurants in college I noticed several violations that would result in a F grade in both establishments. Any one have any questions to how these 2 places passed? I was able to check their inspections and one was done that smae day.

DC restaurant inspectors must be living really well!

Posted by: sheepherder | February 4, 2009 9:20 AM

L.A.'s system is more helpful than you might think. The letter grades not only highlight good or mediocre conditions at specific restaurants, but serve to keep sanitary conditions in the public's mind.

The L.A. Times publishes the list of restaurants with poor grades, and you can see for yourself what the violations are.

Posted by: wnissen | February 10, 2009 12:37 PM

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