Restaurant Report Cards

Some local restaurants may not make the grade

The average American eats out five times a week with no idea if the food they're eating is clean and sanitary. Now there's a call to change that with a restaurant report card hung right in the front window.

About 76 million Americans get sick from food-borne illness every year, and 40 percent of those illnesses can be traced to restaurants.

So would you feel safer if a letter-grade report card warned you about dirty dining?

Patrons in this Virginia restaurant won't have to worry about getting sick after eating here today.

“Okay, we have 167...166 degrees.”

That's the opinion of Fairfax county food inspector Lois Maisel whose attention to food safety keeps tens of thousands of diners safe.

“We try to reduce risk factors. We educate the public. We educate employees.”

“To reduce risk of food-borne illness outbreaks.”

But it's not like that in all restaurants. This footage, taken in Los Angeles a decade ago, shows workers ignoring safe sanitation rules...and insect and rodent infestations.

So ten years ago, Los Angeles turned up the heat in the restaurant kitchen with a report card hung right in the front window of every eatery.

And then what happened in LA?

“They've seen a 20% decline in people being hospitalized due to food-borne illnesses since the program was started 10 years ago.”

Sarah Klein is a staff attorney at the Center For Science In The Public Interest, a food safety group that wants the same report cards for DC area restaurants. Today when restaurants are inspected, the results are filed away...a stream of inspection paperwork hidden by bureaucracy.

“If a consumer wants to know how a restaurant did, they have to send a freedom of information act request to the health department and wait for an inspection form to be mailed to them.”

And no matter who you are, the information can be hard to get. When President Obama goes out to eat, he can't determine cleanliness.

Of 4 restaurants the Obamas dined at last spring, 2 would have received "A’s”, one a "B", and one an "F."
But Andrew Kline, general counsel to the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, says the changes in LA are due to a revamping of Health Department inspections, not to letter grading.

Kline also thinks it's unfair to give restaurants a low grade because they had just one bad day during a pop inspection.

“You get one pop quiz. You have a bad day. And you're stuck with that. You're branded with that. And it's just not fair.”

But CSPI says a bad day for some professions...airline pilot...metro employee...and restaurant operator...puts too many people at risk.

“Why are these inspection reports going into a filing cabinet somewhere. What good is that doing anyone?”

“If they do poorly, nobody knows but them. And that's unfortunate for the consumers who get sick every year.”

So if you want to see the inspection report for your favorite restaurant?

In Virginia it's easy. Go online to the state health department and you can view the actual report by restaurant name. In Maryland it varies by city and county. In Montgomery you have to physically go the health department to view the report.  In Prince George's and DC, you do have to file a freedom of information request. DC Councilwoman Mary Che has introduced a bill to require report cards in restaurant windows.

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