Letter grades on health inspections could be on menu for Prince George's restaurants

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Local,Maryland,Matt Connolly,Prince Georges County

Restaurants in Prince George's County soon may be given a letter grade by county health inspectors and required to display that grade for potential diners to see.

State Del. Kriselda Valderrama, D-Prince George's, is hoping to follow the lead of New York City, which implemented letter grading in July 2010, with legislation that would bring bold-lettered placards to the front windows of restaurants and food trucks.

Cities like Toronto, Los Angeles and St. Louis have letter grading for restaurants, as does North Carolina.

Under the proposal, businesses that don't receive an A will get a second inspection no more than a week later. If they remain A-less, they can request a hearing on the inspection process. A sign must be posted to notify the public that a review is in process, and the restaurant must immediately post whatever grade the county health officer decides on.

Sarah Klein, a food safety attorney for the Center at Science in the Public Interest, called the bill a step in the right direction.

"At this point, in Prince George's County especially, there's no way for consumers to know what a health inspector saw on their last visit unless they're willing to do a whole lot of research," she said.

Restaurant advocates, though, are wary of the potential changes. Melvin Thompson, a senior vice president at the Restaurant Association of Maryland, called the letter grading system "unfair, subjective, confusing and potentially costly."

"Our research has found no correlation between health inspection grading and improved public health," he said. "The current Prince George's County inspection system appears to be working fine."

Thompson added that the difference between grades is open to inspector interpretation and that restaurants scoring a B for minor infractions may be unfairly looked down upon by customers.

Requiring grades to be displayed might cause restaurants to clean up their acts before the inspectors arrive, according to Klein.

"It provides a real incentive for the restaurants to prioritize food safety the way they prioritize the Zagat review or their decorations in the window," she said. "If you can make it happen in New York, you can make it happen anywhere."

The percentage of restaurants in New York City posting an A grade rose from 65 percent in the policy's first six months to 72 percent after a year and a half, according to the city's health department. Salmonella cases and most food safety violations dropped in the years following the implementation of letter grading.

mconnolly@washingtonexaminer.com

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