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With more than 50% of U.S. food dollars spent on meals prepared outside the home, safety inspections at restaurants have become a core function of public health authorities to prevent the outbreak of foodborne illness. They’re also a topic of great interest to the consuming public.
For these reasons, letter-grading programs are increasingly popular at the state, county, and local level. As a public service, these ratings impose uniform safety standards used to compute letter grades that must be prominently displayed on a restaurant’s storefront. The grades serve multiple purposes:
So what are the consequences for a restaurant that falls from an A to a B rating? It depends, of course, on specific details of each case. But in general, it’s something that every restaurant should avoid.
All state and local letter-grading systems are based on the FDA Food Code, which identifies 56 different inspection items. Most public health agencies have adopted this code, sometimes adding many more items of their own. About half of the Food Code items are critical violations that significantly increase the risk of foodborne illness—and therefore are given heavier weight in calculating grades.
During an inspection, which must occur at least once a year, points are added up and measured against a letter scale comprised of 3 ranges: A, B, and C. Although each state may adopt its own numerical ranges, in general the letter grades for all health agencies mean the following:
These grades are then posted both on the restaurant store front and on a pubic online database.
Although the public may think otherwise, restaurants with a B rating is still safe to patronize. The three most prevalent types of violation leading to a B grade are (in order):
Dining Grades, a blog devoted to food safety in restaurants, notes that many restaurants that receive a B grade are often one of two types:
National chains, of course, can’t afford to be a maverick in any case. Their outlier violations should be prevented in every way possible by following a strict HACCP plan along the entire cold chain and ensuring proper employee education. Otherwise, the most common potential adverse consequences of a B grade are:
On the bright side, while unfortunate, an occasional B rating can keep management on their toes to hold their operations to a higher standard.
In general, the letter-grading system is viewed by most people – regulators, owners, managers, and customers – as a good thing. A 2015 study in the American Journal of Public Health evaluated the impact of the letter-grading system in New York City. The researchers found that it had a “positive impact on restaurant hygiene, food-safety practices, and public awareness,” Not only did the system improve inspections in the first year it was implemented, but it also provided an effective incentive for owners and managers to improve operational practices overall. The study noted that letter-grading systems in Toronto and Los Angeles reported similar findings.
In New York City, the implementation of restaurant letter grading has seen a dramatic increase in cleanliness for many restaurants.
Finally, according to a 2012 survey conducted by Baruch College at the City University of New York, 91% of New Yorkers approved of restaurant grading, 81% used the letter grades in making their dining decisions, and 76% felt more confident eating in an “A” grade restaurant.
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