Restaurant-inspection grades to get overhaul in Phoenix

Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, Arizona, has decided to scrap a longtime scoring system that informed customers how restaurants across the Valley performed in health inspections.

The Arizona Republic reports inspections of the 22,500 food establishments in Maricopa County are still taking place, monitoring things such as kitchen cleanliness, safe food handling and rodent control. But county officials say the voluntary award system that went along with it – one designed to help diners gauge which eateries had the best scores – didn’t accurately reflect how restaurants performed.

The system gave gold awards to restaurants that were among the top 10 percent of their peers in health-inspection scores. A silver award went to those in the top 20 percent. Those outside the top 20 percent did not get an award.

John Kolman, director of the county’s Environmental Services Department, said the decision to scrap the old system was prompted by a new health code, a new computer system and criticisms of the old scoring system by the local restaurant industry.

In recent months, he said, county officials met with representatives of the restaurant and hospitality industries to find out what kind of scoring systems they would favor. Kolman said he hoped to propose alternatives later this month and post them on the department’s website for citizens to vote on.

He said his agency is considering a system that would give "A, B, C or D" awards, similar to systems implemented by California and New York.

Jonathan Fielding, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, said, "In trying to develop a system, the most important question to ask is: How do you provide the most protection against food-borne illnesses? That should be the question, rather than, ‘Does the restaurant industry like it?’ "

And Mr. Kolman of Maricopa County, rather than just asking the restaurant industry, you may want to ask public health types, and consumers about the kind of grading system they would find valuable. To get started on you research, here’s a review paper.

Filion, K. and Powell, D.A. 2009. The use of restaurant inspection disclosure systems as a means of communicating food safety information. Journal of Foodservice 20: 287-297.

The World Health Organization estimates that up to 30% of individuals in developed countries become ill from food or water each year. Up to 70% of these illnesses are estimated to be linked to food prepared at foodservice establishments. Consumer confidence in the safety of food prepared in restaurants is fragile, varying significantly from year to year, with many consumers attributing foodborne illness to foodservice. One of the key drivers of restaurant choice is consumer perception of the hygiene of a restaurant. Restaurant hygiene information is something consumers desire, and when available, may use to make dining decisions.