A SCARLET LETTER, OR ONE CLOSE TO IT, FOR RESTAURANTS

A SCARLET LETTER, OR ONE CLOSE TO IT, FOR RESTAURANTS

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The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors adopted this new system in response to a flurry of failed inspections. Fourteen area restaurants were shuttered for health violations in October and November alone. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

"Forty percent of the restaurants have major violations at the time of initial inspection," says Sacramento County Environmental Health spokesman Mel Knight. "By major, that means violations that are identified by the Centers For Disease Control as being associated with foodborne illness."

County health department officials are giving themselves just over one year to hash out final details of the plan. The 5,500 restaurants in Sacramento County will begin receiving door signage in January, 2007.

It's likely the final Sacramento system will resemble the one that Toronto has had in place since 2001. It awards a green "PASS" door sticker to operations inspectors find in substantial compliance with all health regulations, allowing for a handful of minor infractions. Yellow "CONDITIONAL PASS" stickers are given to those restaurants in which inspectors observed significant infractions, and red "CLOSED" designations go to those operations where crucial infractions are observed and officials have issued an order that the establishment must be closed.

On its surface, this sounds like an ideal system for all concerned. Health departments get a big hammer to bring down on sloppy operators, consumers get to know which restaurants could do a better job of adhering to health code regulations and operators that win a "PASS" designation should gain incremental business while simultaneously bolstering their reputation.

But as many full-service operators know, any health department inspection can be a roll of the dice. Walk-in cooler thermometer miscalibrated by a couple of degrees? Empty soap dispenser in the employee hand-washing area? Might a speck of tomato sauce be stuck to the can opener blade? Oh no, did a kid working in your kitchen neglect to put on a hat or hairnet today? Some inspectors routinely write up these and dozens of other minor items like them as violations, while others let them go with a verbal warning, especially when it's the inspector's first visit to your place. If you pay attention to what the inspector tells you and address it before his or her return visit, life goes on as normal.

But in Toronto now and in Sacramento next year, chances are you're going to get a big yellow "CONDITIONAL PASS" sticker if infractions like these occur. It stays on your door until you fix the problem, are reinspected and pass that reinspection. In Toronto, officials are supposed to come back within 48 hours to see if you fixed your problems.

Fair enough, But in the interim, how many customers are going to go into a restaurant with a yellow "CONDITIONAL PASS" sign plastered to its door, indicating shaky health standards in the restaurant's kitchen? And will the damage done to the restaurant's reputation be as temporary as the "CONDITIONAL PASS" sign is supposed to be?

Some evidence suggests that operating a restaurant under this designation won't be much fun. "The sign went up and a lady phoned asking if we were closed and saying we were no longer a good restaurant," says Fatish Sharma, proprietor of Rasoee Indian Kitchen in Toronto, who received a yellow sign in early 2001. "Now people can take advantage of me. They can buy $50 worth of food, complain that there's a hair in it, and because of this sign we have to comply whether it's true or not."

Another problem in Toronto occurred when the system first went into place. Operators who had yet to be inspected had to post a sign stating "Getting Ready for the 2001 Inspection" on their door until the inspectors got to their establishment. This one's not exactly a confidence-builder for prospective patrons, either.

Everyone, particularly full-service restaurant operators, wants to avoid foodborne illnesses and the conditions that can create them. But is the Toronto model the best way? Or will Sacramento come up with a better system?

It's something you might want to bring up at the next meeting of your local or state restaurant association.