Baltimore restaurant owners may soon have to brush up on the A, B and Cs of health department inspections, if City Councilman Brandon Scott’s bill makes it to the mayor’s desk.
The bill would establish a letter grading system, based on cleanliness, and require restaurants to post those grades. It also would require the city health department to create a searchable online database of the grades.
First introduced in 2012, the bill faced a long delay that “stemmed in part from a Health Department request for time to train workers on using a portable electronic inspection device,” according to The Baltimore Sun. Finally, a health committee work session was held on the bill on September 9th.
Scott says it’s a natural step. He told the Sun:
"We know this policy has been proven across the country to be effective…. 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."
Note that Scott said “in our city.” Other cities are doing this — lots of them. Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and New York have letter grading systems in place, and many of them have searchable databases. Los Angeles’s is even integrated with Yelp.
Letter grades seem to have benefited some cities. A study of Los Angeles county grades found that they increase hygiene quality in restaurants. Eighteen months after rankings began in New York City, the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene published a report showing that consumers were more informed and that restaurants were more sanitary.
Yet not all of the reactions to letter grades are positive. Some even call into question the official data. CNN’s Eatocracy called New York’s grading “arbitrary” and “inherently flawed” because performance was left largely to the inspector’s interpretations. Restaurant owner Brian Keyser agreed, telling Serious Eats that it was “... incredibly random based on the inspector you get."
The landscape of the debate is shaping up similarly for Baltimore. The city council is fully onboard with Scott’s plan, and the mayor supports it.
But Baltimore’s restaurant industry is split. Melvin Thompson of the Restaurant Association of Maryland told the Sun that it was possible that the bill would lead to an "unfair, subjective, confusing and potentially costly letter-grading system with no quantifiable public health benefit." But Antonino Germano of La Scala on Eastern Avenue said, "[my restaurant] is my house. I'd keep it clean either way."
Still, Councilman Scott is staying positive, according to the Baltimore Business Journal:
“We know that there are some folks that disagree with the letter grading system, but it’s not just about the letter grading…. It’s about having something the public can readily see about the restaurant they’re going into.”