Councilman wants health grades displayed at Baltimore restaurants

A city councilman is pushing a bill that would require every restaurant in Baltimore to post a health grade based on the facility's cleanliness — but some restaurants are pushing back.

"We know this policy has been proven across the country to be effective," says City Councilman Brandon Scott, who cites similar efforts in New York, San Francisco and Charlotte, N.C. "It's about transparency. It's about education. It's embarrassing that in 2014 the only way a citizen can see the inspection results in our city is to call 311 and wait for the Health Department to give it to them."

A council committee held a work session Tuesday on Scott's bill, which also would require the Health Department to post a searchable online database of restaurant inspections. The legislation, which would take effect next year, would apply to most places food is prepared and sold, including grocery stores and food trucks.

The entire City Council has signed-up to co-sponsor the plan, but some restaurant owners aren't enthusiastic.

Melvin R. Thompson, vice president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, said the organization is "seriously concerned" that the bill would result in an "unfair, subjective, confusing and potentially costly letter-grading system with no quantifiable public health benefit."

In a letter to the City Council's Health Committee, Thompson said the city's current method of inspecting restaurants is working.

"It is poor public policy to suggest to customers that there are different levels of sanitation that are acceptable," he wrote. "Either a food service facility is safe enough to remain open or it is not, period."

Sofi's Crepes owner Ann Costlow said she supports the idea of making inspection reports available online, but she doesn't like the idea of letter grading.

"Nobody is going to go for a 'B' or 'C' restaurant. They'll keep walking down the street until they find an 'A' restaurant," Costlow said. She said she was concerned that a single letter grade would not make a clear distinction between the sections of an inspection report that deal with serious matters versus more minor things. "I'm all for people going online to read the full report, but people are really pretty unsophisticated about what those letter grades [would] mean."

Costlow also said she was wary about giving the Health Department too much influence. "To have one organization have that much power, I think it would be disastrous. Are they the right people to decide the success of a business?"

Attempting to put health inspection reports online isn't new in Baltimore. In 2012, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration said officials were allocating $128,000 for the Health Department to shift its inspection forms from a paper to a web-based system. The system was supposed to be operational by the end of 2013, but still isn't.

That makes Baltimore stand out among large U.S. cities, Scott said.

Of the nation's 40 biggest cities, only Jacksonville, Fla., and Long Beach, Calif., have neither inspection results posted online nor grades posted in restaurants, Scott found.

He points to data from New York that shows that incidents of salmonella infection dropped by 14 percent one year after the city implemented a grading system in 2010. New York uses a point system to determine grades of "A," "B" and "C." Restaurants receive negative marks when inspectors find evidence of mice, cross-contamination of food and raw ingredients, and food being prepared on dirty or greasy surfaces, among other infractions. Eateries with more serious issues are shut down.

"If it works in a thousand places, why can't it work in Baltimore?" Scott asked. "Baltimore has to stop being the 'We-can't-do-it' city."

Some restaurant owners said they are fine with the proposed letter-grading system.

"It really doesn't matter to me," said Antonino "Nino" Germano, owner of La Scala in Little Italy. "[My restaurant] is my house. I'd keep it clean either way." Germano said he believes most restaurants at a certain level are unlikely to pose a health risk. "I think [the Health Department] should go more toward the little corner stores."

Robbin Haas, creator of stylish restaurants such as Birroteca, an Italian restaurant near Hampden, and the Nickel Taphouse in Mount Washington, agreed.

"I don't have a problem with letter grading in my restaurants because I don't have anything to hide," he said. Haas said his problem with the letter-grade stickers is not with the letter grade, it's with the stickers that restaurants have to put on their window.

"The stickers are ugly," Haas said. "It's tacky. I'm not a big fan of tacky after spending $2 million on remodeling a restaurant and have a tacky 'A' sitting on the window."

Under Scott's bill, restaurants where problems were found would be able to fix them before getting a second inspection. But in such cases, they could earn a letter grade no higher than "B."

Scott's bill finally got a work session after he introduced it two years ago. He said the delay stemmed in part from a Health Department request for time to train workers on using a portable electronic inspection device.

Several city agencies endorsed the grading measure, including the Baltimore Development Corp. and the Law Department, although the department argued against requiring inspections to be posted online, saying that state law does not require that.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he supports the measure but is worried about giving too much power to an individual inspector.

"I don't want to unfairly target a restaurant," he said, noting that he likes the idea of a second inspector checking work before posting a grade. "I'm hoping it's not going to be used as a tool by some to go after restaurants they don't like. I'm hoping it's going to be a tool for food safety, not to go after people because you don't like them."

Of starting a grading system, Young said, "All these other cities have it. I think we should have it, too."

City Councilman Robert Curran, chairman of the Health Committee, plans to schedule another work session on the measure to consider amendments.

"In some fashion, this bill will move," Curran said.

Rawlings-Blake called the legislation "important."

"I'm supportive, but it's not done," she said. "I want to make sure what we're implementing works, but that we do it in partnership with the businesses that add so much to our city."

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