March 17, 2011 at 4:13 pm EST | by Mark Lee
Mary Cheh’s ‘Scarlet Letter’

Last week, local diners participated in the annual “Dining Out for Life” benefit for Food & Friends at more than 150 restaurants.

If D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) gets her way, next year’s event participants will be confronted by a “letter grade” posted in front windows of restaurants supposedly indicating the “cleanliness” and “food safety” of the establishment.

Cheh has re-introduced legislation – this time with the loss of both a co-introducer and a co-sponsor – requiring that the District implement a crude “A, B, C, or F” grading system based on a sporadic routine inspection by the D.C. Department of Health.

Her bill, bearing a title only a bureaucrat could love, is the “Restaurant Hygiene Transparency Act of 2011” and is part of an effort by the notorious Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) to impose a mandated grading system nationwide. (You might recall CSPI’s eye-roll-inducing effort attacking movie theater popcorn butter and summer ice cream consumption.)

Not one to pause before scheming new burdensome regulation of community businesses contributing mightily to the city’s tax revenues, Cheh has again proposed creating another layer of unnecessary and unproductive government operation in a city facing a financial crisis and a budget deficit in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Just ask her about her proposed bill to “minimize light pollution” by restricting commercial and retail signage to prevent, among other things, “contributing to insomnia and interrupting the human body’s production of melatonin” and disrupting “animals’ breeding cycles and migration patterns by disorienting their sense of direction.” (Seriously, it’s in the bill.)

So what’s wrong with letting customers know how a food establishment scored on its last health inspection? Shouldn’t this information be made public?

Actually, it is. D.C. posts inspection reports online for easy search access on the District’s award-winning government website.

Problem is, the understaffed and already-overwhelmed inspection department has difficulty correctly posting and updating the information. A quick search of a few local restaurants resulted in mismatched reports and outdated information.

More important, a simple report card grade has little meaning, only represents a “snapshot” of one day, and is highly subjective based on the training and efficacy of the overworked inspector. Even CSPI admits that D.C. has fewer than 20 inspectors for more than 5,000 food service locations.

The front windows of local restaurants, delis, grocery stores, and other food service establishments would be marred by frayed and yellowing placards displaying only an uninformative letter grade originating with the department’s last inspection.

And what happens when a local restaurant gets a temporarily lower score based on “non-critical” demerits requiring a re-inspection within a few days? Jonathan ten Hoopen, general manager of popular Dupont Circle restaurants La Tomate and Mourayo, says that he has never experienced a follow-up visit by an inspector, although required by law.

Chair of the Dupont Circle Merchants and Professionals Association and a board member of Dupont Circle Main Streets, Jonathan is an outspoken critic of Cheh’s proposed legislation and says, “it’s like a ‘scarlet letter’ and is not fair to establishments.” Wondering how a restaurant could have its letter grade reviewed by a department already unable to conduct timely regular inspections or fulfill re-inspections, he suggests that the money would be best spent and provide better results for consumers “to hire more inspectors, provide better training for inspectors in the field and have inspectors do follow-ups.”

New York City is struggling to comply with a similar law passed last summer, completing letter grades for only half of the city’s food-serving locations. The New York Times reports that the data so far suggests that inspectors appear to be ‘bumping-up’ scores for restaurants on the cusp of the arbitrary letter grades to avoid the time-consuming burden of re-inspection required by a restaurant appeal of their rating.

Instead of proposing another “feel-good” law to appease a special interest group demanding more mandates on small business, Mary Cheh should smartly spend our tax dollars to improve the current inspection process and existing online report access. Rather than branding local restaurants with a meaningless and detrimental letter grade, she should be encouraging collaborative efforts with them to ensure effective implementation of existing public health standards to everyone’s benefit.

  • Lee is right and Cheh is somewhere out in La-La Land.

    Anyone who has been paying attention recently knows that the DC Government has serious ethics problems. All this would be is another opportunity to DC government employees to shake down restauranteurs for a good rating. Pay to play is what it’s all about. And you can bet your fully loaded Lincoln Navigator and $110,000 city job on that!

  • Both Los Angeles and New York have laws requires restaurants to post sanitation grades. It hasn’t seemed to hurt their dining scenes. If anything, it is an incentive to the restaurants to strive for full compliance with the health code because they know a low score will be publicly advertised in their own window. The Cheh bill would be particularly helpful to tourists and other visitors to DC who have no other information about whether the restaurant they are about to enter is sanitary and up to code. If the DC inspection system is broken that is no reason to throw our hands up and allow the restaurants to do whatever they want. Bravo Mary Cheh.

  • This woman has also proposed heavily taxing some food/beverage products, too, right?

    Pretty soon she’ll have her fist all the way down our throats — but I’m gagging already!

  • This sort of thing lends strength to the idea that D.C. should shorten its legislative period as so many states do, to limit the opportunities for mischief-making by councilmembers eager to invent more problems to solve.

    I wish to welcome Mark Lee to the ranks of ink-stained wretches. But I can’t believe, Mark, that you treat so lightly the disruption of migration patterns caused by light pollution. Why, my own migration was disrupted late one night when I saw the lights from Bob and Edith’s All-Night Diner.

  • Mark Lee’s advocacy for businesses to poison their employees and customers would be amusing if not so dangerous. I’m sure most of us have experienced food poisoning at a restaurant at some point. It would be nice to have this incentive to restaurants to improve their safety and hygene; as well as the warning to customers of restaurants will less concern for health, such as any business operated by Mark Lee.

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