Restaurant letter grades are toast

Despite a warning from the county grand jury, the Orange County Board of Supervisors declined Tuesday to impose a letter grading system designed to inform would-be diners about the health safety record of restaurants.

It was the second time that county supervisors rejected using a system that’s become nearly universal in Southern California -- using letter grades to measure restaurants.

Orange County does not require its 13,000 restaurants to post letter grades after health inspections. Instead, restaurants are required to post certificates showing that they have met food preparation and cleanliness standards or are scheduled for a reinspection because of past violations.

In May, the Orange County Grand Jury concluded that the county’s current system essentially keeps the public “in the dark” about a restaurant’s record and suggested the county’s Health Care Agency require restaurants to post letter grades so the public knows how they scored in their last safety inspections.

Citing a Stanford University study, the grand jury also noted that instances of food-borne illness declined in Los Angeles County after it adopted the letter grading system in 1998. It also said that most Orange County restaurant customers don’t even notice the certificates the establishments are currently required to post.


But supervisors Tuesday declined to adopt the letter grading system or an alternative plan that would have required restaurants to post color-coded certificates to provide more information to customers. A yellow certificate would have indicated that the restaurant had been cited and was scheduled for a reinspection.

Instead, supervisors opted to redesign certificates to more prominently display “reinspection scheduled” for those restaurants that had enough violations to warrant a follow-up visit by the health department.

Supervisor Bill Campbell, who once owned a chain of Taco Bell franchises, said he thought it was unfair to punish restaurant owners with grades or color codes if they had corrected problems and met health standards. The county Health Care Agency will not allow restaurants to open if they fail to correct significant health violations.

“I do have some concerns about the yellow [warning certificates] in this particular market. Consumers won’t understand. I just think that jumps out too much in this particular time,” said Campbell, citing the slumping economy.

Supervisor John Moorlach said several Orange County residents had encouraged him to adopt a letter grading system, but he lacked the votes on the board to get such a plan approved. Supervisor Janet Nguyen opposed any change to the system, saying restaurant owners already face “hundreds of regulations.”

In Los Angeles County, health inspectors issue A, B or C grades depending on how restaurants score during inspections. A restaurant that scores less than a C is generally required to close.

Health inspectors in Los Angeles and Orange counties close restaurants that are deemed a threat to public health and allow them to reopen only after reinspection. Several restaurant owners in Orange County said they were pleased that supervisors did not adopt letter grades.

“I’ve never liked the L.A. letter grade thing,” said Tim Lowenberg, managing partner of Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion in Newport Beach. “Here in O.C., it’s either you pass or you don’t. If you don’t pass, you shut down. Talk about turning away guests and scaring the public,” shutting down is “the worst that could happen.”

Detailed reports about health inspections are available on the health department websites in both counties. It’s not pleasant reading.

In the last three months, for instance, health inspectors have shut down an ice cream shop in Orange after finding cockroaches on the floor and wall near the preparation counter, a Laguna Beach restaurant after finding a live rodent caught on a glue trap and another Laguna restaurant after spotting cockroaches crawling under a food preparation table. Each of the restaurants reopened after passing follow-up inspections.

Dr. Jonathan Fielding, who heads the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, said the letter grade system has worked well in his county.

“What is more important than protecting the public’s health?” Fielding asked rhetorically when told Orange County supervisors had turned down letter grades.

He also disputed O.C. supervisors’ fears that such a system would pose an economic hardship for restaurants.

“It doesn’t necessarily impose economic constraints,” Fielding said. “What we’ve shown is that revenues go up as people feel more confident” in a restaurant’s health safety.

“Our system reduced food-borne illness,” Fielding said. “As far as I am concerned, providing helpful, timely information to the public, along with an incentive for the restaurants, are important in protecting the health of the public.”


Times staff writers Susannah Rosenblatt and Jean Merl contributed to this report.