State legislators want restaurant grading system, but state inspection agency says it's misleading

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The Consumer Watchdog investigations into dirty kitchens have some local food safety experts questioning whether a grading system is needed for restaurants like they have in New York City. This would require restaurants post a letter grade on their window so customers know what's happening in the kitchen.

The state makes inspection reports public through its website, and WPTV posts them on our website , but you have to dig deeper to find out if the restaurant has been fined as a result of their inspections.

Through multiple public records requests, we recently found restaurants not paying their state fines. When this happens, the state won't renew the restaurant's license. That still doesn't keep the business from opening its doors.

One restaurant called the sheriff when we showed up for an explanation for its unpaid fine and expired license. After we began asking questions, local restaurants paid off $9,000 in fines.

Our stories have also found most customers have no idea what's happening in the kitchen because they never checked the reports.

Three state legislators want to make it easier for customers to see how a restaurant scored during a state inspection. They're pushing two bills, one in the House and one in the Senate , that would require restaurants post letter grades for everyone to see.

Local food safety experts think grading system would help public

"How hard is it for the public to figure out what's going on with a restaurant?" we asked Palm Beach State College Hospitality Department Chair Danny Fontenot.

"It's really hard unless they're listening to someone like you," Fontenot said.

Fontenot teaches culinary and hospitality at Palm Beach State College.

He thinks a grading system would put the heat on restaurants to comply with the law.

"The public likes it when they can see A, B or C on the restaurant door," said Fontenot.

Food safety expert, Fred Stein of Safe Food Connection, also believes a grading system would solve some of the current problems the Consumer Watchdog is exposing.

In November , he said, "I think many of the restaurants understand how the system works," said Stein.

He promotes a food safety culture in restaurants.

"If you don't have a system then they might not take it so seriously because the public doesn't know your restaurant is in violation or is dirty," said Stein. "Those restaurants are motivated to have an A in their window."

Many cities have the grading system including New York.

State doesn't support grading system

The Department of Business and Professional Registration, which inspects the restaurants, feels a grading system is not the best approach.

"Grading public food service establishments provides incomplete information on an establishment’s inspection history and may be misleading," the agency said in a statement.

The agency uses a science-based three-tier category labeling the violations high priority, intermediate, and basic. A high priority issue deals with something related to possible food borne illnesses. Intermediate problems could contribute to a food borne illness if not fixed. A basic violation deals with good retail practices. 

"These inspection practices enable DHR (Department of Hotels & Restaurants) to better communicate with licensees and the public in a clear and concise manner on the results of an inspection," the state said in a statement.

We'll continue to follow the progress of this bill through the state legislature.

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