Grading Eateries: ABCs of Food Safety

New system in Los Angeles adds to the growing awareness of health and nutrition matters nationwide.

With flashlight holstered on a left belt loop and food thermometer on his right, Los Angeles County health inspector Gary Hirschtick strides boldly into the kitchen of a Sizzler restaurant.

He shines the light under shelves, he pokes his thermometer into meat, potatoes, and guacamole. After deducting five points for cold, already cooked bacon (below 141 degrees F.) and five more for various equipment infractions (a damaged slicing board, for example, is minus 2), he subtracts the total from 100. "They barely squeaked through for a grade 'A,' " he says.

Los Angeles's just-adopted system, which prominently displays each restaurant's health rating in a letter grade, has arrived. Here in the county with the most restaurants in the United States, the rating system, and a major TV expos of restaurant practices, has garnered national attention and put more emphasis on the issue of food safety.

Indeed, experts say the hygiene abuses highlighted in the Los Angeles TV station's four-month investigation are widespread. And they add that copycat exposs in other American cities are imminent, as well as public-policy debates on federal, state, and local standards that could benefit from the lessons already unfolding in California.

"The high ratings [for the Los Angeles television expos] and public outcry over restaurant conditions are pushing the debate over inspection reform forward nationally," says Steve Grover, technical adviser to the National Restaurant Association (NRA).

From discoveries of E. coli bacteria in fish to last year's outbreak of mad-cow disease in Britain, the Los Angeles case is just the latest in a string of high-profile episodes that have increased public concern over food and health, say Mr. Grover and others. The average food buyer has become more sophisticated and aware than in years past.

"Interest by consumers in health and nutrition-related matters has skyrocketed in the last decade," says Caitlin Storhaug, national spokeswoman for the NRA. "They are turning a new awareness into vigilance in the marketplace that both food marketers and restaurateurs can't afford to take lightly."

The Los Angeles story exploded when KCBS went behind kitchen counters to film scenes that TV watchers couldn't swallow: cross-contaminated food, inappropriate refrigeration and storage, and workers smoking and eating while handling food, among other infractions.

Ratings soared and heads rolled. The County Board of Supervisors cracked down on its own Health Department, which closed 140 restaurants in one month and just unveiled the new rating system.

Patrons' delight

"I love this idea," says a man entering the Van Nuys Sizzler after the "A" grade has been posted beside the door. "Now I can tell which restaurants are clean and which are filthy."

Although government officials, patrons, and some restaurant owners applaud the new system for its clarity and openness, others say it is unfair.

Critics of say a restaurant with five or six minor infractions (tallying one or two points each) might get a lower rating than one with major infractions that are more dangerous.

"The L.A. system may or may not reflect the sanitary conditions of a restaurant," says Guy Starkman, chief operating officer for Jerry's Famous Deli restaurants. "The inspector might walk in at the end of a shift when the restaurant happens to be out of paper towels - that could cost you the same 5 points that some other restaurant gets for serious infestation."

Restaurant owners here say the system has other flaws, too.

First, there is no way for restaurant owners to change ratings by correcting their problems immediately. Instead, they have to wait until a follow-up inspection - which is unannounced.

Plus, some restaurateurs add that wealthier restaurants have an unfair advantage. They can get more points for having costly appurtenances such as stainless-steel shelves and alloy meat racks that are more sanitary than cheaper wood and rubber racks.

"There is a great potential for this system to be discriminatory against those trying to break into the business with a small investment," says Lucille Yaney, owner of the Inn of the Seventh Ray, a natural-foods restaurant.

Raising awareness

Despite the new system's flaws, most observers say the Los Angeles episode has raised consciousness about conditions that are widespread and serious. Forty-four new inspectors will be added here in coming months, and the average number of yearly inspections is expected to increase from the current average of 1.8 a year, to nearly three.

"We will fine tune this as we go along," says Health Department spokesman John Schunhoff. "Although we are having a lot of public pressure directed at us to improve our procedures, this episode has also underlined for people across the country just how closely their local health departments touch their daily lives."

Inspector Hirschtick says Los Angeles will become a model for the country to watch and the idea will snowball. "The pressures can only grow for other cities to follow suit and adopt more serious guidelines," he says.

Restaurants in America

* Number of restaurants nationwide: 799,000.

* Number of employees: 9.5 million.

* Sales in 1997: $336 billion.

* Share of food dollars spent: 44 percent.

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