05/24/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Letter Grades Make Restaurants Safer

Few of us think of eating out as being an inherently risk activity. It's not rock-climbing, or bungee jumping. But in fact, at least 40 percent of all foodborne illness outbreaks in the U.S. can be traced to food served in restaurants. Given that the average consumer eats restaurant-prepared food at least five times per week, that's a lot of chances to get sick.

On March 16, New York City decided to do something to protect its millions of residents--and millions of tourists--by requiring critical food safety information right in the window of every restaurant. A letter grade placed in the window will show consumers just how well (or poorly) a restaurant performed on its most recent city health inspection. Thanks to the New York City Board of Health, consumers will have an important clue as to what's happening behind the scenes--and whether the health inspector thinks the restaurant needs to clean up its act. An attractive decor and server's smile doesn't always indicate a sanitary establishment.

Restaurant inspection grade cards have been used with great success in a few other places. In Los Angeles County, where consumers have enjoyed access to inspection information for 11 years, the health department has documented a 20 percent decrease in hospitalizations due to foodborne illness. That same drop has not been seen in parts of the state without grade cards. It's clear that grade cards perform two critical functions: providing consumers with information and spurring restaurateurs to upgrade their food safety practices.

So why aren't all cities using grade cards? Some are: Las Vegas, St. Louis, and the entire state of North Carolina, to name a few. But the restaurant industry has been mostly resistant, with only a few courageous restaurateurs willing to buck the National Restaurant Association and support giving consumers the information they deserve. Chef Tom Colicchio, of Bravo's Top Chef and owner of several New York City restaurants, was one of those few industry proponents, arguing that "anything that is going to encourage people to clean up their act and protect the public is a good thing overall."

The industry worries that grade cards will serve as a scarlet letter, taking a snapshot of performance and branding the restaurant with it for all eternity. That fear is misplaced. A 2003 study of the Los Angeles grade card system found that restaurants with an "A" grade saw an increase of revenue by almost 6 percent, and even revenues at "B" grade restaurants stayed flat. Further, New York City has designed a clever reinspection system that allows restaurants a grace period to protest a low grade without posting it, while cleaning up and getting a second inspection.

Of course, just because a restaurant makes an A doesn't mean no one will ever get sick. That's why our food system needs the reform that the Senate is considering now--to create preventive controls and require companies to identify and reduce the risks of their products, so that food can be made safe before it ever reaches the restaurant kitchen. Grade cards are just part of a working food safety system--the part that consumers can see and weigh when they are making their dining decisions.

It comes down to this: eating out shouldn't be a risk. But if you're going bungee jumping, don't you want to know the safety record of the guy hooking up your cord?

This article was co-written with CSPI Food Safety Staff Attorney Sarah A. Klein.