County to explore restaurant ratings

The Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday agreed to further explore color-coded restaurant inspection signage in response to a grand jury report that criticized the county's current system as confusing.

For years, a debate over the system — which uses nearly identical orange placards that require close scrutiny to see whether a restaurant has passed, conditionally passed or failed its most recent inspection — has largely been on the back burner.

In past discussions, the board has considered moving toward letter grades to align with the systems in neighboring counties, including Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego.

But efforts fizzled over concerns about funding and potential affects on small businesses.

On this week's agenda, the board was asked to consider a formal response to the most recent report, which suggested a traffic light-style color code — red, yellow and green – similar to ones in Sacramento and Alameda counties.

The board opted to put off making that formal response until members could look more closely at color coding. County staff members will report back on the issue by May 20.

This week, supervisors said they hoped to finally put the debate to rest.

Constituents have said that when it comes to food safety, "It's your job to protect us," said Supervisor John Moorlach, who has been a strong supporter of a color-coded system.

Keeping the status quo only to have the issue resurface every few years doesn't serve the public, added Supervisor Pat Bates. And switching to a color-coded system, she said, could be a simple, cost-effective fix.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who has previously supported a letter-grade system, agreed — though he asked county staff members to explore creative ways of curbing any implementation costs while still serving businesses, such as allowing retired restaurant inspectors to conduct off-hour reinspections on a part-time basis.

Moorlach, Bates and Spitzer voted in favor of exploring the color-coded system.

While Supervisor Janet Nguyen said she may ultimately support that effort, she abstained from the vote until she could determine whether a new system would mean increased fees for small-business owners.

"I don't want this to be a burden on our businesses," she said. "A restaurant is not a dollar business. It's a penny business."

Supervisor Shawn Nelson, on the other hand, opposed the proposal outright, saying that it's not the government's role to make decisions for consumers.

"It's about food safety," he said. "Either you're endangering the public or you're not."

From that perspective, Nelson said, Orange County's current system is good enough. Under it, a failing restaurant will be closed — and that is the point, he said.

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