Food inspection grades: A – B – C, easy as 1 – 2 – 3 … or is it?

foodsafety0041New York City has them, so does L.A. Even Toronto has them. So why aren’t there food safety inspection grades posted outside of restaurants in King County?

The answer? Food safety performance placarding is coming, and when it does, it will give patrons and establishments alike information that is meaningful, clear, and motivating.

Diners need to know actual risk

There’s a lot on the line: Studies show that restaurant placards influence consumer behavior. But research on the systems that give A-B-C grades shows that A-B-C placards don’t communicate what consumers are expecting.

A-B-C placarding doesn’t distinguish between what’s risky and what isn’t, and that means that diners aren’t necessarily making safer choices. For example, say a restaurant has 25 violation points stemming from a broken tile, a dirty floor, and a few other code violations that don’t increase risk of a person getting a food borne illness. Another restaurant is clean as a whistle, but hand washing is lax. Both these restaurants would get the same number of violation points, and, presumably, the same “grade.” But the risk at eating at the restaurant with the hand washing problems is much higher – even though the “points” are the same.

Diners need more than a snapshot

And, all of these systems reflect a “grade” of only the latest inspection. A single inspection may not reflect everyday food safety behavior at a particular restaurant. If placards don’t reflect every day food safety behavior, there’s a chance that a grade could provide a false sense of security OR an unmerited concern about risk.

Public Health is learning from other systems around the country and world about what works and what doesn’t. We’ve engaged food safety experts, industry, academics, and community members in a public stakeholder working group to develop recommendations. The bottom-line recommendation is that placards should reflect the establishment’s performance over time, as it relates to food safety risk, not just a snap shot of the latest inspection.

Coming soon to a restaurant near you

Our next step is to take all of our inspection reports and create a way to convey risk in a meaningful way. Whether that will be stars, numbers, or another symbol is too early to say. We’ll test what we develop with the public to make sure it works. Our goal is for people to see the placard, and make informed choices based on having solid risk information about that restaurant’s food safety performance.

Learn more on our food inspection web page.

Subscribe to Public Health Insider: Use the “Subscribe Via Email” button, just below the Public Health logo.