VOL. 1  NO. 1  AUGUST 1999



  Click for Los Angeles, California Forecast   [LA Times]
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"B" Is For... Bugs?

I have always been a paranoid restaurant-goer. Who hasn't heard horror stories about a bug cooked into the blintzes, or the secret ingredient that a disgruntled waiter slipped into a burger? Five years after the fact, I still haven't recovered from my horror at hearing a health inspector declare to the owner of a New York restaurant where I had just finished lunching that he had found "major violations," including rodent droppings in the kitchen. All told, I only truly trust myself in the kitchen.

Imagine my delight at discovering when I moved to L.A. last year that California restaurants are required to post their health inspection ratings in the form of an easy-to-read letter grade. A blue letter "A" in a restaurant's window has come to represent worry-free dining. But just how much trust should we put in a restaurant's grade? An informal survey of my friends has revealed that, while they are certain that a restaurant with a "B" is questionable and a "C" is big trouble, no one is quite sure what the inspection criteria are.

That is exactly the question I posed to Ricardo Montes of District Environmental Services (DES), the office in charge of conducting restaurant health inspections. Inspections, Montes explained, are conducted at least three times a year and are unannounced. Inspectors use a checklist which assigns numerical values to 45 inspection issues. Each health violation the inspector notes causes points to be subtracted from the restaurant's overall score. Overall scores are calculated as percentages of the total possible points. Restaurants that earn scores of 90 percent or higher are allowed to post the bold blue "A" int their windows. Eighty to 89 percent earns a green "B," and 70 to 79 percent a red "C." Scores below 70 percent are expressed in numerical values, rather than letter grades.

Areas of inspection are divided into nine categories: Food Protection (temperature and storage), Employees (cleanliness precautions), Vermin, Utensils/Equipment (cleanliness, condition and storage), Food Storage (facilities, cleanliness and temperature), Water, Waste, Facilities (lavatories, ventilation and physical structure), and Miscellaneous (clothing, signs, etc.). Checklist items that DES perceives to be of greater significance to consumer safety are assigned higher point values, resulting in a greater impact on the establishment's overall score. A handwashing violation, for example, would cause a restaurant to lose four points, whereas a problem with the employee dressing room would only warrant a deduction of one point.

In some cases, the inspector is expected to use his discretion in choosing the appropriate penalty depending on the degree of severity of the violation. One such issue is food temperature, which appears twice on the inspection checklist with five point and one point values. Montes explained that this allows inspectors more flexibility in recording infractions, in this case deducting one point if a single food item is out of the safe temperature range and five points if there are multiple violations.

But how does this inspection system translate into the quality of our dining experience? It is alarming to note that some of the health issues of greatest concern to restaurant patrons are given comparatively low value by DES. It is possible, for example, for a restaurant to lose a total of seven points if a health inspector finds violations for handwashing and insects, yet still to receive an overall "A" grade if there are no other violations.

Dan Greenstein, manager of Rosti in Brentwood, says he appreciates the rigorous inspection system. "It's for the guests," he says, noting that many restaurant patrons take the DES grade into account when choosing where to eat. Greenstein also points out that the inspection system is particularly hard on independent small restaurants, many of which operate in older facilities which would require expensive renovations to be brought up to standard. Cracked walls and ceilings, old plumbing and cracked floor tiles are common violations in restaurants that operate in older buildings. These violations could result in a combined total deduction of eight points or more, dropping the offender to a maximum score of 92 percent. Any further deductions would cause the establishment to fall into "B" range.

A drop in grade does not have to spell the end for an eating establishment, however. Restaurant owners can pay a fee (currently $161) to have DES reinspect their premises in as little as two weeks after the original inspection.

The inspection process is designed to help restaurateurs, Montes stresses. Greenstein concurs. "I'm glad when the inspector shows up," Greenstein says. "I thank him." And so do we.

- Brigette M. Kinney

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