The ABC's of Restaurant Cleanliness

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Someone recently regaled me with too many details concerning a bout of food poisoning she suspected having caught at the raw bar of a waterfront seafood restaurant in Coconut Grove. I hear such tales quite often, and as one who dines out multiple times weekly, can sympathize with such horrors. I've been there, and so, probably, have you. In fact, roughly 200,000 Americans will become sickened by a foodborne disease today. Of these, 900 will require hospitalization. And fourteen will die. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than one in four Americans suffers from food poisoning each year, and these numbers are going up up up as our system of food processing becomes more industrialized. Here's a solution: Make it mandatory by law for all restauranteurs to post their health inspection grade on the front door of their establishments.

It isn't a new idea. Many American cities long ago ended the guessing game. Los Angeles requires the front window of every restaurant to post a giant letter designating the grade assigned to them by the county food inspectors; anything less than a C results in a suspended permit.

How's this for results? In 1997, before ratings were posted, 52% of restaurants in L.A. earned an A; nowadays that number is 83%. And a study by Stanford economics professor Phillip Leslie found that after enactment of this law, Los Angeles hospital admissions for food poisoning declined by 13.3 percent.

So why not try this in Florida?

Well, one county did. In 1987, Pasco County passed an ordinance requiring health inspections to be posted conspicuously. It worked gloriously, too, and Pasco eateries were among the most sanitary in the state. But in 2005, under pressure from powerful restaurant industry organizations, the state took over inspections, and did away with Pasco's letter-grading system.

The Division of Hotels and Restaurants, part of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, has since the mid-90s been in charge of health inspections. A recent legislative audit faulted the division for reducing the roster of inspectors from 180 to 159 -- an average of one per 264 regulated businesses. That same audit found the division did 55,000 fewer inspections of restaurants and lodgings than its own rules require.

You do have some rights left as a diner. According to Florida law (Section 509.101, Florida Statutes), the most recent restaurant inspection report must be maintained on the premises and be made available to to any diner for inspection. But that's not good enough. Various branches of the National Restaurant Association are using member dues to defend rogue, rat-infested restaurants over the public's right to dine in cleanliness. Let the Division of Hotels and Restaurants know that you'd like public posting of health inspection grades by contacting them online.

In the meantime, be very picky about where you eat — and by all means, avoid the raw shellfish at a certain waterfront restaurant in Coconut Grove. -Lee Klein

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