Orange County should give itself an F for the way it informs the public about health conditions in restaurants, according to a grand jury report released Thursday.
Most residents are "in the dark" about whether a trip to a restaurant will result in a memorable meal or a stay at the hospital. The report's recommendation: Follow Los Angeles County's example by implementing a grading system that assigns each restaurant an A, B or C.
"Studies . . . have concluded that the implementation of an ABC grading system has caused a significant reduction of food-borne illnesses," the report said. "Those restaurants with an A grade have increased their revenue, while C-grade restaurants have either cleaned up their establishments or closed -- a win either way for the consumer."
The grand jury investigation was inspired, the study said, by a not-uncommon scenario:
"It is the weekend. You want to take your family, a special someone, friends or business associates out for a celebratory dinner. For months you've wanted to try that interesting-looking neighborhood restaurant that you drive by on your way home from work."
After eating there, however, the narrative continues, "you awaken with a terrible stomach ache, vomiting and diarrhea. You stay home from work. Your children, who are also suffering, miss a day of school. . . . You ask yourself, 'What happened?' Then you realize that your neighbors, who were your dinner guests, experienced the same symptoms."
Grand jurors accompanied county health inspectors on routine visits to restaurants, studied the websites of neighboring jurisdictions, and interviewed health officials and a county supervisor.
They concluded that although county-mandated health inspections are frequent and thorough, their results are posted on small, unobtrusive placards seldom noticed by diners. Instead, the report asserts, eating establishments should be graded on their compliance with health regulations and those marks prominently displayed.
In the first three years after implementing such a system in 1998, Los Angeles County experienced a 28.8% decrease in food-borne hospitalizations, the report said. Similar systems are also in use in Kern, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties.
"There is an ongoing battle raging nationwide regarding the most effective way to ensure the general public's right to know how safe their local restaurants are," the report concludes.
"It is time" for the Board of Supervisors "to stand up on the side of the public."
Supervisors have 90 days to respond to the report.