Health Inspection "Grades"

Joined Dec 4, 2001
I understand that LA restaurants are graded by health inspectors as a high schooler might be on math or English. "A is eat off the floor clean and "D" is..... well, you get the idea.

So this Supervisor in SF wants to institute a similar system here. The idea is getting mixed reviews. I personally think it is a bad idea because the eating public may not be knowledgable enough to interperate a result which is, after all, just a snapshot in time and not necessarily indicative of the true and ongoing state of cleanliness in the restaurant kitchen. (I think that is the longest sentence I ever wrote!)

Also, if the condition is that bad, instead of the inspector giving a poor grade, they should be working with the restaurant operator to clean up their act or shut them down.

I actually have a lot more thoughts on this subject but I have to go out now. I wonder how it is working in LA and what thoughts the Chef Talk community has on the subject?

Joined Jul 3, 2002
Hi Jock,

It's my understanding that they do work with the restaurant to correct problems and come back to re-grade after the changes are made. But you're right about public misunderstandings. The grades are based on a point system and points can be taken off for things that have little to do with actual food safety as well as for things that have everything to do with food. So not all "B" places are equal. Most people I know have no problem going to "B" or "A" places but feel uncomfortable about "C" places--the grades are posted. And the L.A. Times lists restaurant closures each month. These are usually for things like food kept at unsafe temperatures, vermin, no hot water, etc.

Here's a link to the handbook available to all restaurants from the health department. It's a PDF file so it takes a little time to come in:
Joined Jun 13, 2002
We've always thought this type of grading system was unfair! But California, being as regulated as it is, it's not surprising.

It's a rather generic form of grading something that is very complicated to grade. A numerical health department score is much more defined in it's conclusion.

Joined Mar 2, 2002
I disagree that
"A numerical health department score is much more defined in it's conclusion.", as emhahn says. I think that health department scores are difficult for consumers to understand in general - from state to state, and regardless of the grading system used. And the local news' sensationalizing of the week's scores rarely helps to educate.

The problem, in my opinion, is that health inspectors are not allowed (or not willing) to see the forest for the trees. They are often not really involved in/interested in educating the people they are grading in really being safe. It seems to me, they are more often interested in finding things to count off, no matter how long it takes. What ends up happening, where I live anyway, is that fairly dirty restaurants, which take 15 minutes to count off, get the same scores as more clean restaurants that take 45 minutes to nit pick to death in order to find something to count off. It's almost as if the health inspector decides before he/she comes in what the score is going to be, and he stays as long as he needs to in order to arrive at that score.

In that case, it doesn't really matter if you call it a "B", or an "87". It still is not neccessarily an accurate representation of the cleanliness of the restaurant.

Joined Dec 4, 2001
I used to work on a cruise ship that came into Ft Lauderdale, FL every Staurday and periodically the local health officials would come and do an inspection. They used a numeric score and a passing grade was 84. One walk-in-box temp too high would cost 20 points and an automatic failing grade.

The ship would take on supplies to feed 1200 people for a week and that meant the walk-in-box door was open for an hour or two on Staurday morning and guess what? the temperature was too high when the health inspector came. None of them ever conceded that it was only temporary until the stores were loaded and the ship (along with most others) consistently "failed" the health inspection.

Bureaucrats.... Arrrrgh

Joined Sep 21, 2001
I guess I am fairly lucky in my state. About 10 years ago the health code was updated to reflect a more realistic approach to stemming food-borne related illnesses. As someone in the department said "The idea was to get away from critiquing the ambience and more about how people get sick". So, as a result, any voilation that involved handwashing became "critical " and the crack in the linoleum floor became "non-critlcal". With the emphasis being on handwashing, other forms of cross-contamination, and proper heating and cooling of food. The state also went to a numeric system with those changes which, IMHO is much easier to understand. BTW- my inspection date is in the next few weeks- I'll let you know how I do and if I still like the health dept. as much....
Joined Oct 13, 2001
Here in Nevada the scores , findings and reinspect dates are posted in the local Reno paper every week . Also every food operation must have a person employed who has completed and kept current there food service sanitation liscense . They also use the point system which works like your school grades did . My last score was a 97% out of 100% . Ive seen scores in the 50% range shut restaurants down because of the bad press . They also print the findings such as employee ashtray in use on top of ice machine,no soap or towels available at handwash sinks, dish machine not operating at proper temps,cross contamination such as thawing chicken stored and dripping on top of lettuce and employee restrooms totaly filthy with no soap or towels for handwashing . My opinion is (since I also like to eat out) that its a pain to have these people inspect us but if you know your job then you also know that without these other eyes our industry could slip into sloppy work habits easily . I have found through all my inspections ( and I have had 12 state and county over the last 4 years not to mention the corperate suits ) is to fix any problem at hand right there with the inspector . Show that you do care and that you appreciate there non biased extra set of eyes . Also if you work for a big corperation you can use the health department to get things fixed that the company would let slide until being pushed by them . Sometimes as chef managers we can ask for things from the company that we know we have to have but we do not get results until they are pushed by the governing agency . In days not so long ago a good score was determined by a quick walk through and maybe a comped dinner for the inspector and his better half ! Not any more so just educate yourself and most importantly your staff and just do the best you can . Doug..........
Joined Sep 21, 2001
Got my restaurant health inspection today. 0 critical violations, 0 non-critical violations. The comment on the form was: Kitchen is clean and well organized".
I guess it pays to be a "stickler". (apologies, Suzanne!)
Joined Mar 12, 2004
As someone who spent 15 years as an inspector, I think that inspections, regardless of the rating system, are as varied as the people involved. Not only do the inspections involve rules and regulations, but also the personalities and attitudes of the restaurant personnel, the inspector, and the inspector's supervisor.

Chefs and restaurant managers generally fall into two categories; the ones who see the inspector as another set of eyes and an asset to the food safety program, or the ones who see the inspector as an annoyance who always shows up at the wrong time and has little practical knowledge of real food safety.

Inspectors can also be classified in two types; those who are genuinely interested in public safety and want to work with restaurant personnel to achieve optimum food safety procedures, or those who like being an authority figure (everything is by the book--either black or white) and may be prone to throwing their weight around.

The sanitation inspector's supervisor also plays a role. I have worked for supervisors who did not want restaurants with good sanitation programs to be sited for minor deficiencies, because a simple verbal warning would get the same results and promote a better working relationship with restaurant personnel. But I also worked for supervisors who felt that there is no such thing as a perfect facility and would reprimand inspectors who did not find and write up at least one infraction.

Certain combinations of supervisor, inspector, and chef/manager can produce a wonderful symbiotic working relationship that achieves the goals of all concerned. Other combinations can be highly volatile and antagonistic, and may actually be counterproductive.

IMHO, the rating systems and publication of restaurant ratings is just a byproduct of all of the rules, regulations, and human interactions involved. One day you may get off with a warning when caught driving 15 miles over the speed limit. The next day you might get a ticket for going 66 in a 65 zone--just because you copped an attitude or the cop got up on the wrong side of the bed.

And so it goes...
Joined Sep 21, 2001
Joe, the inspector and I had that same conversation yesterday. In another attempt to remove a little of the personality variable, this state is changing their inspection policies to closer reflect the FDA standards instead of state standards. He did'nt elaborate on the details but what I got out of the new changes is:
Implementation of an FDA approved sanitation course for all restaurant managers and supervisors.
Mandated reporting of any foodborne disease or illness and a better description and policy for dealing with sick employees. This one I like. It reduces my liability in cases of sick employees getting customers sick, i.e. hepatitis A.
A more uniform inspection system that is geared towards the areas identified and the leading vectors of potential contamination and spoilage. The state has been going in this direction for the last several years and I am pleased to see it is continuing that direction. They are making modifications to the scoring system to include 2 more catergories besides "critical" and "non-critical" and dividing violations which are seen as potential hazards vs individual tastes of inspectors. Those non-potential hazards will be grouped as "best business practices", so the idea that you "must" find something wrong may get a little more difficult to do. In other words- a small hole in the linoleum floor has yet to be identifies with a single case of foodborne illness in my state, while improper handwashing, improper stacking of raw meat products, cross-contamination, improper cooling, holding and reheating of food, and improper warewashing account for most of all of the foodborne illness outbreaks in the state.
I did'nt have any violations on my inspection, and have had very few in our history. My inspector did have a few "you might do this" and "you could do thats" during our conversation and I interpret that as "do it". That may explain my good relationship with the health dept.
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