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OC Health Officials Propose Color-Coded Restaurant-Inspection Seals

OC Health Officials Propose Color-Coded Restaurant-Inspection Seals 

The proposed seals would work like a traffic light: Green means a restaurant is safe, yellow means take caution, red means the place is shut down.

October 23, 2008

By DOUG IRVING
OC Register

Orange County restaurants would have to post color-coded inspection seals on their windows to give customers more information about the cleanliness of their kitchens under a plan being put forward by health officials.

The proposed seals would use the same colors as a traffic signal and would replace existing placards that merely say whether a restaurant passed its latest health inspection.

A green card would mean health inspectors consider the restaurant safe; yellow would mean they found some problems; and red would mean they shut the place down.

The county's Board of Supervisors will likely vote next month on whether to adopt the new system. Color-coded inspection seals could begin appearing on restaurant windows as early as July 1.

"It seems to be practical," said John Moorlach, the board's chairman. He cautioned that he was still looking into the proposal, but added: "I'm really intrigued by the idea."

An Orange County Register investigation earlier this year found more than 20,000 major food-safety violations in 2007 in Orange County restaurants, supermarkets, convenience stores and other food venues. The investigation found that even restaurants with major health problems could continue to operate without public scrutiny because the existing, posted inspection seals give too little information.

Those seals say only whether an eatery is in "substantial compliance" with food-safety standards or awaiting a re-inspection. The county's grand jury found in a report this year that the dining public is "almost universally unaware" of those placards.

The grand jury concluded that the county could better protect people from food poisoning and other food-borne illnesses by requiring restaurants to post letter grades based on their health inspections. That kind of A-B-C grading system has been in place in Los Angeles County for a decade.

But, in a report given to county supervisors this month, the Orange County Health Care Agency warned that it would cost more than $500,000 to implement a grading system. Instead, the agency suggested the less-expensive color-coded seals, which would be "easily recognized" and, like restaurant grades, would give diners a way to quickly assess the cleanliness of a restaurant.

The color-coded system would put the focus more on major violations that pose the most health risk, according to the Health Agency's report. In a grading system, a restaurant can lose points and grades based on both major and minor violations, the report added.

Most restaurants would likely earn a green card under the proposed system, said Richard Sanchez, the director of environmental health for the Health Care Agency. A yellow card would show that inspectors found at least two major health violations – such as improperly stored food or vermin – that were fixed but still required a re-inspection.

The red cards would show that an eatery had so many major violations that health inspectors shut it down on the spot. For now, the county requires closed restaurants to post no warning to their customers; they can even put a sign in their windows that says they're closed because the owners are on vacation.

The proposed yellow and red cards would have space for inspectors to write in the violations they found.

The Orange County Restaurant Association has not yet taken a position on the plan, but president Pamela Waitt said there's some concern among its members. In particular, she said, they worry about the long-lasting impact of a "scarlet letter on the door."

A restaurant can get hit with a major health violation for having an improper level of sanitizer in its cleaning water, or for keeping food at the wrong temperature. But Waitt worried that customers who saw a yellow or red card in a restaurant's window would always assume the worst.

"Once that damage is done, it's really hard to undo," she said. "We all know that if people aren't seeing green, they're not going. And if they see red, they're done; they're not coming back."