County Moves Toward Clearer Restaurant Safety Rating Signs

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Orange County, at the urging of the local grand jury, is likely to join its neighbors and require restaurants to prominently display food safety ratings that are easily seen by potential diners.

At their board meeting Tuesday, a majority of county supervisors supported a prominent sign system requested in a recent grand jury report. Currently, restaurant health inspection results are available online through the county Health Care Agency, but clearly-labeled signs are not required outside to inform customers deciding whether to enter a restaurant.

“I think the [current] system is very much now out of step with Southern California,” said Supervisor Todd Spitzer, noting that all surrounding counties use a letter-grade system.

Visible ratings are “long overdue in our county,” he added.

Los Angeles County enacted its A-B-C food safety sign requirement in 1998, following an undercover TV news investigation that showed unsafe conditions in restaurants.

Over the next three years, foodborne hospitalizations in LA County dropped 29 percent while the rest of the state saw a 6-percent drop, according to a Stanford Graduate School of Business study cited by grand jurors.

(Click here to read the grand jury’s report.)

Supervisors ultimately voted 3-1 Tuesday to direct county staff to return by May 20 with a report that recommends a colored sign approach. That system would assign specific colors to ratings: green for “pass,” yellow for “conditional pass” and red for “closed.”

Chairman Shawn Nelson opposed and Supervisor Janet Nguyen abstained, citing a desire to better understand costs for restaurants.

Nelson said the inspections should simply be pass or fail, and it’s not government’s job to give positive ratings for businesses.

“We’re about protecting health, not giving awards,” Nelson said.

Nguyen, meanwhile, said she abstained out of concern for the extra $10 to $27 that color-coded signs are expected to cost restaurants.

“I don’t want this to be a burden on our businesses,” said Nguyen, whose husband and former chief of staff once co-owned a restaurant in Stanton that was found by county inspectors to have unsafe food conditions.

“It’s a penny-pinching business, so every penny means a job or two,” Nguyen said, asking if the extra cost could instead come out of the county general fund.

Vice Chair Pat Bates, meanwhile, countered the cost isn’t that significant in light of the public health benefits.

“If somebody’s sitting in a car and they can read the sign better, that’s what it’s about,” said Bates.

County staff previously pegged the additional cost at $10 to $27 per restaurant or more than $500,000 overall, according to Spitzer.

Most of that added cost, he said, would come from the extra time inspectors would spend arguing with restaurant owners if their rating is downgraded.

To speed up re-inspections after a restaurant gets a negative rating, Spitzer suggested the county hire back some of its retired inspectors on a part-time, per-inspection basis.

Food safety staff from the county’s Health Care Agency inspect 35,000 businesses each year, Moorlach said.

Several constituents have urged Moorlach to adopt some kind of system for potential customers to quickly know a restaurant’s food safety rating, he added.

“That’s your job. You’re supposed to protect us from restaurants” that aren’t meeting minimum safety standards, Moorlach paraphrased them as saying. “I think the grand jury makes some strong points.”

The three supervisors who supported the move initially had different views on what type of signs to use.

Spitzer preferred letter-grades, Bates wanted color-based signs and Moorlach was fine with either letter-grades or color-coded signs. The board ultimately directed staff to use the color-coded system in its final report.

The food safety report’s reception came in stark contrast to last year’s grand jury report on corruption in Orange County.

In response to the corruption report, county supervisors publicly scolded grand jurors and threatened to cut their pay.

This time around, Moorlach made a point of thanking the grand jury for “a fine report that was polite and thorough.”

Please contact Nick Gerda directly at ngerda@gmail.com  and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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