Color codes for restaurant inspections stirs the pot

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Capital News Service

LANSING –  Of the 45 health departments across the state, only one is discussing a color-coded grading system for restaurants, similar to one used across the nation, officials say.  

A Detroit City Council member recently introduced a proposed ordinance after several incidents involving rodents in restaurants across the city. It would require businesses to notify customers of the status of their inspections by posting color-coded signs on the door. 

“I think this is really going to help our businesses,” said council member Scott Benson, who introduced the proposal. “Restaurants with green placards, meaning they don’t have any food safety concerns or food safety issues (could) really attract customers.”

Among the incidents he cited: In 2018, there was a viral video of dirty dishes being used, wet floors, insects and uncovered meat at a Popeyes on Grand River in Detroit.

In 2021, a Church’s Chicken on Detroit’s north side was closed for several health violations including knowingly serving expired meat.

Recently, Lafayette Coney Island was closed after a viral video showing rodents in the restaurant.  The restaurant was to reopen Saturday, Oct 15, according to Crain’s Business Detroit.

A green sign would indicate that the establishment complies with state guidelines. White signs would mean the establishment was inspected but needs to make corrections and that a follow-up inspection is required.

Yellow signs would mean the  health department is investigating the problem and will conduct follow-up inspections. Red would indicate that the health department has closed the establishment. 

The proposal is receiving received pushback from local businesses and other health officials across the state. 

“Restaurant owners have been through so much and so I just don’t think that it’s great timing to bring that on to a restaurant,” said Norm Hess, the executive director of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health.

Andrew Cox, the public health officer for Macomb County Health Department, agreed.

“I think where we’ve seen nationwide other areas sometimes struggle is when they focus on a grade or score where restaurants, and individuals tend to focus on that score only instead of the overall performance of the restaurant,” he said. 

Detroit is the only city in the state discussing this  color-coded system, but other cities across the country have similar things in place, Hess said.

Since 2010, for example, New York City has required restaurants to post letter grades where people can see them. 

In Chicago, businesses fall within three categories: pass, pass with conditions or fail. 

“This is something that has been done around the country and around the world for decades, ” Benson said. “San Diego has been doing this since the 1940s. So when you talk about transparency, education and food safety, it’s a necessity.” 

At the most recent Detroit public health and safety committee meeting, representatives of over 30 restaurants and businesses urged Benson to allow their input  before moving forward with the proposal. 

The Detroit Black Business Alliance raised concerns in a letter to  Benson: “Black businesses are denied access to capital more than any other business. Black businesses were impacted by Covid more than any other group. Our members raised many legitimate concerns and deserve the opportunity to raise those concerns before this ordinance becomes law.” 

Although the Washtenaw County Health Department considered requiring businesses to post their actual inspection results, officials never went through with it. 

“If you do a system where it’s color-coded or graded, the details of how that is implemented are certainly something to consider as well,” said Kristen Schweighoefer, the environmental health director for Washtenaw County.  “Not every restaurant has a front window or door to post it in, so there’s a lot of different details.”

Most departments across the state already post inspection results online that are accessible to the public. The Macomb County Health Department will even print out results for customers in the office per request, Cox said.

“Facilities can vary diversely on the amount of food preparation they’re doing in their operation. A coffee shop making coffee (has) very limited food prep,” Cox said.

“However, a full-service restaurant, there is quite a lot more that’s involved with food safety. So to compare those two is not a fair comparison from the standpoint of just a score,” Cox said.

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