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Inflammatory NBC Restaurant Health Grade ‘Investigation’ Doesn’t Tell the Full Story

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Yes, you can pay for a new grade, but reinspections were always mandatory for low scores anyway


An inflammatory NBC Bay Area so-called investigation found that San Francisco’s Department of Environmental Health recently started a pilot program that allows restaurants with health scores 70 or lower (enough to require a closure to address identified health risks) to pay for a rescore. In this program, $191 will get you a “surprise” follow-up inspection within 30 days and a new score based on that unscheduled (but generally expected) inspection.

Four restaurants have so far taken part, including M.Y. China in Westfield Centre, which went from a 63 to a 93, and Southern food spot Farmerbrown, which jumped from 79 to 90.

As NBC would have you believe, the program sounds pretty corrupt, and the story points to Yelp, which certainly thinks so, adding a line on Wedneday to its food safety warning pop-ups that reads, “We understand the city recently caved and now allows restaurants to essentially buy new scores,” as well as deciding to keep that warning on a restaurant’s listing for six months regardless if there’s a new, improved score.

But the intention behind the program is to only make the scoring system more accurate, and thus fairer — something the NBC story glosses over. The Golden Gate Restaurant Association worked with the city to implement this program, since as director Gwyneth Borden explains, scores were not accurately reflecting a restaurant’s inspection status.

“What most people don’t understand is that any restaurant with a low score [enough to be shuttered] is reinspected within a week to ensure the high risk violations have been remedied. But as of right now, a new score is not issued [after that reinspection], which means the score is misleading,” Borden explained to Eater. “Since these violations are corrected and are often temporary in nature, issuing a new inspection score makes sense. Clearly if the restaurant didn’t improve between inspections, that’s something to be worried about.”

GGRA associate director Donnalyn Murphy further explains that there is a fee associated with the rescore because that inspection is in addition to the one directly after the low score that allows for a restaurant to reopen (or not). The DEH sends a different, more senior inspector to conduct those requested reinspections, so it adds a new procedure and more time to their systems, and it also does not guarantee a higher score. If those issues (or others) are still there, the score will reflect that. Here is the full criteria to be eligible for a rescore:

Has received a score of 70 or lower

Has not received a re-score within the last 18 calendar months

Must complete the application and pay the fee $191 (which is the approximate amount of money it costs the city per hour per routine inpsection)

Rescore will be conducted as an unannounced, unscheduled routine inspection within 30 days of approved application

Rescore inspection shall be conducted by district inspector and principal inspector or senior inspector for quality control and assurance purposes

If the rescore results in a lower score, then the restaurant cannot re-apply for another rescore inspection

The DEH considers this new pilot program a way to “better educate restaurant owners about food safety,” which Murphy agrees with. “What they’re [the DEH] hoping to implement is an opportunity not only fix the issues that they were required to fix in order to reopen, but also now to show that they’re continuing to do what the inspector trained them on. Through this program, restaurants are very motivated to do so, so it actually reinforces the education in the minds of the restaurateurs and the staff, as well as the importance of keeping the standards high,” she said. Other districts with this policy have seen subsequent higher scores in reinspections the following year, according to Murphy.

So instead of highlighting an important, valuable new program that could ultimately affect the health and safety of diners, the NBC story sensationalized and inaccurately represented the process. In an industry where success is often an uphill battle, this new program aims to improve the experience for diners, while accurately reflecting better scores that could make the difference between staying open and closing.

Moving forward, the city plans to re-score ten to 20 more restaurants before reviewing the results and deciding whether or not to fully implement the pilot program.