by Matt Rocheleau
As Boston health inspectors prepare to start handing out grades to publicly rate the food safety practices of every restaurant in the city, officials in nearby Newton are getting their first taste of a similar program.
Early results suggest that, since the advent of the new system, the suburb’s restaurants are doing a better job at meeting the standards designed to prevent food-borne illness, Newton officials said.
Earlier this year, Newton inspectors rated each restaurant’s food safety practices using a points-based system. Depending on the numerical score, each restaurant was placed into one of four categories — superior, excellent, fair, or unacceptable.
The results were shared with restaurateurs, but the initial round of scoring was not made public. It was intended just to familiarize owners with the system, Youngblood said.
Last month, the city began taking the ratings public. The scores are being posted in prominent locations inside each establishment — and online — on a rolling basis, as inspections are completed. Officials hope that all of the roughly 200 restaurants citywide will be rated by the end of January, she said.
As of the end of October, 61 restaurants had received a public score. Only a handful fell outside the superior or excellent, Youngblood said.
More than eight of 10 of the restaurants publicly rated had achieved higher scores than they got during the program’s pilot period, suggesting that restaurants had stepped up their games, officials said. Nearly half the restaurants saw score increases that bumped them up to the next highest category.
Youngblood said she didn’t expect such immediate improvement.
“I had thought they would improve but that it would take a while,” she said.
She said the point was “for the restaurants to have the most safe, clean kitchens and a management system in place to maintain that and improve that … so the public can feel confident they’re going to eat in an establishment where they feel safe.”
The program, which Newton officials believe is a first in the state, was developed using grant funding from the US Food and Drug Administration.
Bob Luz, president and chief executive of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said he was not sure yet what to make of the program.
“Newton’s implementation is so new that it is too early to tell how it will work,” Luz wrote in an email. “The results bear watching.”
Still, he commended Newton officials on having a “thorough, inclusive process” that included both restaurateurs and residents before the city launched the program.
Youngblood said restaurateurs had worried that the rating process would become onerous and potentially lead to a drop in sales if they received a poor rating.
“But in other communities that have rolled it out, they have not seen a financial hit to restaurants,” she explained. “If anything, they’ve seen an uptick in business because there’s an increased confidence among consumers.”
She said other cities that have launched rating systems have also seen a drop in health and safety violations and in reports of people experiencing food-borne illnesses.
Youngblood said the new system provides extra motivation for restaurateurs to follow the rules. She said that in past years, at some locations, inspectors would repeatedly write the same violations. The infractions typically were not serious enough to prompt serious action like a shutdown, but the lack of cooperation was still bothersome.
“There wasn’t quite enough incentive for restaurants to make some of the fixes,” she said. “Now the stakes are high.”
Newton’s system differs in some ways from the program Boston is planning and from other cities’ rating systems.
Youngblood said that Newton officials had wanted, and would still prefer, an ABC letter grade-based system and had also considered requiring ratings to be posted in restaurant storefronts, rather than on interior walls, both features of Boston’s plan. But Newton officials made concessions.
“It seemed like relatively harmless concessions,” said Youngblood, who took over the health and human services department after development of the rating system began. “This is something that’s going to be on the walls of their establishment and we respect their opinion. They’ve put a lot of work into these businesses.”
Newton inspects each establishment at least once per year. Certain types of establishments, like sushi restaurants, are inspected more frequently because they are considered to have a higher risk for food-borne illness.
Youngblood said that once inspectors issue a score, the rating will stand until the restaurant’s next full inspection. But if inspectors find that violations have been corrected during interim visits, the city will issue a certificate that the restaurant can hang next to its score placard to note the fixes.
Youngblood said the city is working to inform consumers about what the ratings mean.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of the restaurant, whether the food tastes good, or the quality of the service,” she said. “This is a very specific review that has to do with the quality of the kitchen in terms of preventing the risk of food-borne illness.”
She said Newton recently applied for another FDA grant to turn the city’s restaurant rating program into a model for other cities and towns.
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