New York City’s paternalist in chief, Michael Bloomberg, has announced that his city will now require restaurants to prominently post their safety inspection grades. Mary Cheh has introduced a similar bill in DC. On the surface it seems like a good idea. Here’s a writer at Slashfood, for example, a site not exactly known for its critical thinking about regulation:
So will this work? When Los Angeles County enacted the letter grading system back in 1998, only 40 percent of its restaurants received “A” grades. By 2006, 83 percent were meeting the standard. I have faith — it will take some time, but restaurants and consumers alike will benefit.
LA’s results are likely true, but it confuses the measurement with what we’re trying to measure. What we should care about is actual food safety, not the letter grades restaurants are receiving. If the grades aren’t highly correlated with preventing customers from getting sick, then restaurants are just wasting time and money to comply with arcane regulations and to create the illusion of safety.
Jessica at Crispy on the Outside looked up some her favorite places:
I actually read the health department reports and find that most of my favorite awesome restaurants have some infraction, usually that there is no “food manager” at the restaurant when the food police show up, which would get them a “C”.
Is having a “food manager” on duty during all business hours a cost effective way to improve outcomes? Maybe, maybe not. We do know that it drives up expenses for restaurants and training time for employees. Before we give restaurants a scarlet letter for violating this rule, we might want to find out if it actually accomplishes anything. And that’s just one rule of many.
Marc Fisher notes at the Post that proposed system relies too heavily on city inspectors:
[…] a fair and useful system would depend more on transparency than on the blunt instrument of letter grades that may not represent anything more than the misdeeds of a single vindictive, corrupt or incompetent inspector. Is there a D.C. resident who cannot imagine that their city might be home to such an inspector?
Add bribes to the higher costs of business a letter grade system might impose on DC restaurants.
The irony of this regulation and related laws about posting nutritional data is that they’re coming at a time when information technology makes them less necessary than ever. We’re not far off from the time when GPS-enabled internet phones will tell you everything you’d like to know about a restaurant as you pause in front of its window. Cities should focus on making their inspection data readily available electronically; the usefulness, if any, of current measures is limited to a few years before technology will render it obsolete.
Lastly, the nannies behind this law have no sense of aesthetics. I’ve eaten at dives and I’ve eaten at high-end establishments. When I went for banh mi in the Virginia suburbs and watched my friend flick a roach of his wrist while we waited for our sandwiches, I knew what I was getting into. (Our lunch was delicious, by the way.) Similarly, when I go out for an expensive dinner at a nice restaurant, I trust the chef not to send me home sick. Pasting a tacky city inspection certificate in the window just detracts from the experience.