It began on Thanksgiving weekend when Channel 2 started its undercover investigation of restaurant kitchens. Suddenly food safety jumped into the spotlight and even Mayor Richard Riordan's restaurant was shut down. Under the glare of media scrutiny and in an attempt to regain the public's trust, the Board of Supervisors has hastily implemented a new restaurant ratings guide that is wreaking havoc in the dining world of Los Angeles.
The problem is that the ratings program, while well-intentioned, doesn't provide consumers with an accurate assessment of a restaurant's ability to prepare safe, wholesome food.
Restaurateurs requested an opportunity to provide input for the new program but the county refused to listen. So we now have a bureaucrat-designed ratings system that includes building inspections and recipe distortions in what should be a food safety assessment.
For example, cool curtains--plastic strips placed inside a refrigerator to keep cold air in when the door is open--are not required in restaurants. Yet many restaurateurs such as myself use them to better maintain the correct temperature for cold foods. If a plastic strip is torn, as was one of mine, two points are taken off of your score, even though they're not required. A cracked wall tile? 2 points. A poorly caulked soap dispenser? 2 points. Another restaurant was marked down when the health inspector found employees standing on a wooden box so they would be comfortable at the table while doing food preparation.
Although all restaurant owners strive for constant improvement, it is simply wrong to have customers frightened away by visions of vermin infestation and cooks licking their fingers when the real problem is a torn plastic strip or cracked wall tile.
As restaurateurs, we may not know all of the bacteriological implications of certain recipe handed down through the ages. Yet holding hollandaise sauce at 140 degrees (under new regulations) will cause it to end up looking like cottage cheese. We should all remember past attempts to do away with rare roast beef, Peking duck and eggs sunny side up.
Restaurateurs simply want the opportunity to participate in updating important food standards. After all, we do know how to cook.
I grew up in the San Fernando Valley and I have seen many restaurants come and go. Restaurants are only as good as their reputation. If you do things well, customers may tell a couple of friends. But do something wrong and they'll tell a dozen. The new rules' potential for economic damage and negative impact on employees and employers must be considered; ratings must be fairly and thoughtfully assigned.
With restaurant closures up more than 300% this year over the same 16 days of January 1997, these first rounds of inspection have the aura of a witch hunt.
We have to consider how many jobs are at stake. Arturo Aguirre of the county Environmental Health Services Division has said we are now identifying conditions for closure that before would not have resulted in closures.
The idea should be to educate and correct, not punish. For reasons that include profit, liability and pride, restaurateurs--like the public and government officials--desire high standards in food inspection and cleanliness. We have families of our own and enjoy dining out as much as our customers do.
In a better planned program, education could take place during the inspection and, through a thorough understanding of the problems and issues, training and compliance could ensure food safety without unfairly jeopardizing the jobs of so many people.
By the time the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services determines that this program isn't working well, too many restaurants will already be out of business. And a lot of people will be out of jobs.