MOORLACH UPDATE — Restaurant Rating Redux — March 7, 2014

The restaurant grading system proposal is back. This years Grand Jury revived the topic and provided a recommendation that mirrors the one I unsuccessfully supported five years ago. For a sampling of the fun back then, see Restaurant Rating System and MOORLACH UPDATE Seal Beach Sun March 1, 2013 (in the LOOK BACKS section). The OC Register covers the latest report in the first article below. The second piece is from the OC Registers teaser on its front page.

GRAND JURY SEES THREE SHADES OF COMPLIANCE

A green-yellow-red system would show the status of eateries.

BY MIKE REICHER

Offering an apparent compromise for the restaurant industry, the Orange County grand jury on Thursday recommended the county adopt a health inspection system with green, yellow and red placards, instead of letter grades, to inform customers whether food-service establishments are complying with the health code.

The county is the only one among its neighbors without a letter-grade system, and Thursday’s report was the latest attempt to give consumers easily recognizable information. Previous tries here met opposition from the restaurant industry, but this time may be different, officials say.

The Board of Supervisors has three months to respond to the recommendations.

I’m not trying to put restaurants out of business, said Supervisor John Moorlach, who recommended a similar system in 2008, but I want to make sure they’re doing their best to get a good green tag in the window.

Orange County saw a spike in the number of foodborne disease outbreaks, with 20 in the first half of 2011, the most recent period for which county data is available, compared to nine in the previous three years combined. About 3,000 people die each year from contaminated food nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Today, the county health department issues one of three orange placards after each restaurant inspection: one for pass, another for re-inspection due and another for closed.

Patrons can get a copy of the restaurant’s latest inspection report online (ocfoodinfo.com) or if they ask for it at the restaurant, but hardly anybody does, said Russ Bendel, the owner of Vine Restaurant in San Clemente.

Colored signs definitely will help guests choose where they want to go if they have multiple options, he said.

The grand jury recommends using the same three categories as today, but coloring them like traffic signals. This is a more practical approach than letter grades, the report says, without the disruption and burden and expense.

Improving the visibility of the current unremarkable graphic to a more distinctive image is an overdue step forward, the report says.

It criticized other counties for operating without any conformity in their letter grades for weighing certain infractions differently.

Grading systems have become so ubiquitous that the restaurant industry is now trying to work with governments to make the systems as business-friendly as possible, said California Restaurant Association spokeswoman Angie Pappas.

The most important thing is the re-inspection process, Pappas said.

Her organization is working with the Orange County Health Care Agency on a proposal, she said. Today, the agency re-inspects restaurants within two weeks, but the grand jury recommends shortening the period to between 24 and 72 hours. That would mean restaurants would be displaying yellow placards for a shorter time.

In Sacramento County, one of a few California counties with a color-coded system, people have gotten used to it, Pappas added. It’s not something that we’re constantly hearing from members because they’re upset.

Restaurant lobbyists opposed a 2008 grand jury recommendation to convert Orange County to letter grades. And, the health department warned that it would cost more than $500,000 to implement a grading system, and could erode trust between restaurant owners and inspectors. The Board of Supervisors instead considered a red-yellow-green system.

Supervisors nixed that system, though, some saying it could stigmatize restaurant owners. Instead, the county made minor changes to the placards.

Supervisor Janet Nguyen in 2008 opposed the color system. At the time, her husband and chief of staff were co-owners of a sandwich shop in Stanton. In 2012, the most recent year public financial disclosures are available, Nguyen reported income from her husband’s food-related business. She says her husband sold his interest in the shop and in 2012 closed his consulting business. Nguyen, through a spokeswoman, said she needed to study the issue before commenting on Thursday’s grand jury report.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer said the county should be consistent with its neighbors. Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties all use letter grades.

It’s actually expected, and I think we’re out of step, he said.

Contact the writer: mreicher

WHATS NEXT

The Board of Supervisors has to respond to the grand jury report within three months. When it does, the recommendations could be implemented, changed or rejected. Supervisors John Moorlach and Todd Spitzer said they would consider leading the discussion.

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