Maricopa County's Restaurant Inspection Process Goes from Being Easy on Restaurants -- to Being Even Easier.

Categories: News

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Lauren Gilger

A Maricopa County health inspector walks into a Valley restaurant to conduct a routine health inspection. He turns to the chef and asks, "Would you like to participate in the county's restaurant awards system today?"

It's been a rough day at the restaurant. The chef is short-staffed, behind on lunch service and wondering how he can survive an inspection with the place in this state. It's very possible that there is a litany of violations waiting in the kitchen behind him - violations he'd rather not be made public.

Given the choice, what do you think the chef's answer will be?

Get the rest of the scoop on the county's new, laxer regulation system, after the jump.

This is the way the county's new (and supposedly improved) restaurant rating system, announced Friday, October 14, will work.

The county's roughly 19,000 eating and drinking establishments will get grades of A, B, C or D based on the number of food-safety violations they've racked up during their most recent county health inspection. That's good; it's a more specific rating system than the previous one.

But that might not matter one bit - because the new rating system is entirely voluntary.

While inspections will still be completed as always, "no restaurant is required to participate," says John Kolman, director of the County's Department of Environmental Services. "We want the industry to be rewarded for actively doing those things that they need to do to minimize food borne illness."

Unfortunately for the public, the alternative is also true. 

"Where restaurant inspection scores are not visible to the public, the restaurant industry has very little incentive to improve their food safety protocol," says Sarah Klein, a staff attorney with the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C.

"You have no incentive to improve if no one's ever going to know."

The new grading system was up for a public vote on the department's website until the votes were tallied and a new system was announced last week. Out of nearly 600 votes, 70 percent of them went for an A, B, C grading system. The majority voted to add a "D" score to that list as well.

It's replacing a rating system that awarded a gold or silver star to restaurants according to their inspections as compared to the other restaurants in their category. The restaurants with the most violations received no star.

That was a system the Arizona Restaurant Association didn't particularly like.

"It wasn't based according to true merit," says Steve Chucri, the association's president.

Now, the county likes to maintain a friendly working relationship with the industry it regulates. So, when officials found themselves with a new, federal food code to implement and an old computer system that couldn't support it, they turned to the Arizona Restaurant Association to help them shape a new restaurant rating system to go along with the new code.

Sounds like the fox was invited into the hen house, if you ask us.

The result is a system that went from being easy for restaurants - to even easier. Under the old system, which expired about two months ago, no restaurant was required to post its rating on its window or advertise its most recent inspection grade. But anyone could look up the restaurant's rating on the Department of Environmental Service's website.

Now, under the new A, B, C or D grading system, restaurants can opt out of being graded at all. You can still get the inspection report on the county website, but no grade will be posted with it - or on their front window - if the restaurant operator doesn't want it to be.

"I think that this is probably a great success for the restaurant industry and an unfortunate failure for consumers and for transparency and public health," Klein says. If you're not required to post a bad score, she says, no one will do it.

A restaurant owner who also happens to be a member of the Arizona Restaurant Association (which has roughly 8,000 members), "will fall in line with the leadership of that organization," she says.

"He will not want to bear the wrath of his fellow restaurant association members who are trying to defeat measures that publicize inspection grades."

And what a wrath it could be.

"In Arizona this year, we're expecting to be a $9.6 billion industry," says Chucri. "We're one of the largest employers," he explains, citing the industry's more than 230,000 employees.

His point?

"We're an industry to celebrate." Not an industry to regulate.

"I think more mandates on an industry, more mandates on small business is not the way we want to go," Chucri says.

The point of restaurant inspections is to prevent dangerous outbreaks of food borne illnesses. Forty percent of food borne illnesses is linked to restaurant food, Klein says. But restaurant associations nationally are "afraid to air their dirty laundry," as she puts it, by publicizing restaurant ratings.

Chucri disagrees. "If people are getting sick at your restaurant, you're not going to be in business very long," he says.

He and Kolman both say they're convinced most restaurants will participate in the new grading system. After all, they want to stand out, and good scores mean good publicity.

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Lauren Gilger
Chef John Wong labels a container of flour as the Maricopa County Inspector watches at Sn Pacific Rim Asian Kitchen in Mesa.

Two hours into a routine inspection of the kitchen of Sn Pacific Rim Asian Kitchen in Mesa, chef John Wong finds himself face to face with what could be a less-than-flattering rating.

But whatever rating is about to come down, he isn't going to post it. He never has.

He also plans to opt out of the new grading system, now that he can.

"I don't think people are really that into it," he says.

But what if the county were to require every restaurant to publicize its grade? "It would work," Wong admits. It would force him and his colleagues to change procedure because "you don't want B's or C's."

Or D's.

"It would make a health inspection more meaningful," he says, "-- to everyone."

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13 comments
El Jeffe
El Jeffe

Having worked in the restaurant business let me tell that health inspections in Maricopa County are by no means easy. Inspectors are thorough, unyielding and will spend a significant amount of time in your establishment. With that being said, let me also state that the entire health department orginazation is the definition of a burreaucracy. There is no continuity between inspectors, they change the rules every quater and the majority of inspectors have no clue of the day to day challenges of running a business. Award, no award, award, no award. Make up your f****ing mind already. Business as usual!

Mike Todd
Mike Todd

Chucri disagrees. "If people are getting sick at your restaurant, you're not going to be in business very long," he says.

Exactly. That's just the invisible hand of the market at work. If a few people have to be sickened, hospitalized, or killed along the way to a market correction, so be it.

Dominic Armato
Dominic Armato

Wait... so are any inspection results logged *at all* if the restaurant doesn't want?  Is it just the letter they have the option of declining, or is it the entire inspection?  Does the county have the ability to shut somebody down, or is "Y'know, you probably shouldn't store that pork for four days unrefrigerated on the floor," as far as they can go?

I'm having a hard time believing that there's zero oversight... am I missing something?

Chris Lee
Chris Lee

I bet people will be much more sensitive to stories of food borne illness. With knowing people can opt out of this, I'll be more likely to skip a place where I've heard a couple reports of problems. I know of some places that have had issues but with corrected scores, never worried about going back. And I typically don't worry about this stuff at all.

Lauren Gilger
Lauren Gilger

It's not that inspection reports aren't available to the public. Inspections will continue as always. What's not required anymore for a restaurant is getting a grade/rating that goes along with that inspection. They can opt out of the rating system. 

"Now, under the new A, B, C or D grading system, restaurants can opt out of being graded at all. You can still get the inspection report on the county website, but no grade will be posted with it - or on their front window - if the restaurant operator doesn't want it to be."

Thanks for reading the story. I appreciate your comment!Lauren

Mike Todd
Mike Todd

Well, maybe. I think people who were consulting the reports before will continue to do so, and those who didn't (like me) will continue not consulting them. In reality, the system hasn't changed much, except for the elimination of a mandatory summary score, whether it be the old star system or the newfangled letter grade system. 

What I take issue with is the implication that should rely on word of mouth to contain outbreaks of food-borne illness rather than minimizing the occurrence of these illnesses rigorous and consistent enforcement of food safety regulations. Besides, the word of mouth thing cuts both ways, in my experience. I've seen plenty of examples of people broadcasting claims of being sickened at a particular establishment, often with little or no proof.

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