Sunday, September 02, 2007

Post the "A, B, C's" for Boston Restaurant Inspections

A week ago, Northeastern student reporters published an investigative report in the Boston Globe which highlighted numerous health code violations in some of the "best" restaurants in Boston.

Wednesday night, a West Roxbury restaurant grease fire appears to have been burning for an hour in the false ceiling, leading to a kitchen fire and ceiling air conditioner collapse that killed two firefighters and injured twelve; the restaurant had a "history of code violations for greasy equipment" and was eight months overdue for an inspection.

In 1997-8, Los Angeles saw a series of scandals for restaurant health code violations that sounds eerily similar to what we have recently experienced here in Boston.

On the night before Thanksgiving in 1997, health inspectors closed the Original Pantry restaurant (fee required), an establishment majority-owned by then-Mayor Richard Riordan. The restaurant had been open and patron-occupied continuously for decades -- even when the Pope passed by in a parade -- so its overnight closing was a well-publicized streak-ender. The Mayor, to his credit, rolled up his sleeves and spent hours during the night helping to clean up the place so that it could re-open on Thanksgiving morning (fee required). You can just imagine the phone call on Thanksgiving morning to the ISD: "This is the Mayor. Could you please come inspect my restaurant so that it could re-open?" or something like that.

Several months later in 1998, local TV station KCBS came out with an investigative report (fee required) exposing wide-spread health code violations in L.A., which led to a new law (summarized at the Food Safety Network):
A local TV station showed yuck-factor items such as cockroaches in restaurant kitchens and rodent infestations. The mayor told the county health department to fix the situation. The result, within a few months, was a more robust public health system: mandatory training for restaurant operators, an influx of inspectors and an influential (and replicated) restaurant-grading system that uses grades A, B and C posted at the door. Patrons loved it, and the county reported a drop in the incidence of foodborne illnesses.

In the years since Los Angeles introduced its system, more than 100 North American jurisdictions, including many in Ontario, have started proactively disclosing inspection results...
Some restaurant managers say that publicly available grades motivate them to avoid the stigma of a bad grade. Some managers even display the inspection information proactively...

Restaurant owners complained that the large, posted letters "A", "B", or "C" at their doors would drive customers away. In fact, the law did exactly what it was supposed to, according to Chris Daly of San Francisco in 2004:
A recent study [of LA's 1998 law] by Stanford economics professor Phillip Leslie found that after enactment of this law, Los Angeles hospital admissions for food poisoning declined by 13.3 percent [PDF] and restaurants were quicker to come up to code. Despite claims to the contrary, the study also found that the system increased business. The cleanest restaurants saw revenues increase by 5.7 percent.
The Original Pantry restaurant currently has a 91-rating, qualifying for an "A", according to an April 2007 inspection found at the L.A. County Department of Public Health's website. (Note: their website speed is awful!)

I propose that it is time that Boston enact an ordinance similar to Los Angeles, where the health code inspection status are displayed prominently at the entrance to all city restaurants. Owners will complain, saying that customers will be lost to neighboring cities, but L.A.'s example shows that won't happen:
Sales at restaurants receiving an A grade rose 5.7 percent, or about $15,000 a year. B-level restaurant sales increased 0.7 percent, and sales at C-level establishments decreased 1 percent.
As quoted above, patrons will love it. Good restaurants have nothing to fear, since the displayed record will show their superior cleanliness. Filthy restaurants, however, will be motivated to clean up their act.

Mayor Menino says that there won't be an increase in the number of restaurant inspections
, but I suspect he will soon cave in to public outcry over the killed and injured firefighters; he's simply on the wrong side of this issue. How can he possibly support a "stay-the-course" policy which is unable to keep up with the required rate of restaurant inspections? Recall that the West Roxbury restaurant was eight months overdue for inspection, regardless of the conclusion of whether or not such an inspection could have prevented that fire and the subsequent deaths. Nonetheless, he could move forward with this "ABC" plan without contradicting his previous statement (although the number of inspectors still appears inadequate).

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