While the vast majority of Coachella Valley food establishments received “A” grades, about 8 percent failed unannounced health inspections in the past two years, according to a Desert Sun analysis of data from the Riverside County Department of Environmental Health.
Out of the valley’s 1,865 such businesses — ranging from restaurants and ice cream trucks to hot dog stands and grocery stores — 151 were downgraded from an “A” rating when inspected from July 2012 to June 2014.
Of those failed inspections, 17 led to closures.
Six businesses failed three or more inspections.
Toni Romero, owner of the catering service Sacher Enterprises, said she supports the stringent grading system because it adds transparency and accountability.
“We could be wrong from anything – from the refrigerator not working, from your temperatures not being at the right temperature. It could be a variety of things, not necessarily that it’s a bad place,” said Romero, who operates her catering service in a commercial kitchen.
“You have to remember that they’re (health inspectors) looking out for the public,” she added. “That’s what their job is. They’re not going to go in and give you problems just because. They go by the guidelines.”
Riverside County has used a color-coded grading system since 1963 for public awareness.
The blue “A” signifies a restaurant is up to par with county health guidelines. A green “B” or red “C” indicates trouble.
The argument can be made that unannounced health inspections – which vary in frequency for each establishment though occur at least once per year – are not representative of a restaurant’s overall compliance with health and sanitation standards.
“It’s not necessarily accurate, but it’s better than nothing,” said Doug Powell, a former public health professor and publisher of Barfblog.com, a website that aggregates food safety news coverage.
Powell likened the inspections to “snapshots in time,” but said that enforcing compliance through public notices like letter grades is a form of “shame and blame (that) is probably the most effective because no one really wants to be embarrassed.”
The letters usually are plastered near the front entrance. Inspection reports are available at restaurantgrading.rivcoeh.org, which is updated daily. Restaurants and other food businesses also are required to show their latest report if a customer asks to see it.
An “A” is the only passing grade in the system, which scores inspections from 0-100, with 90 being the cutoff point for a pass.
The points are deducted in increments of one, two and four points per violation, depending on the severity.
They add up.
“Traditionally, you’ll see minor violation after minor violation, and the next thing you know, they don’t have enough consistent points to stay in that 90 percentile,” said Howard Cannon of Restaurant Expert Witness, an Atlanta-based consultancy that provides testimony, opinions and reports for plaintiffs and defendants in court cases.
“If you prepare your restaurant every day with the idea of safety, security, cleanliness, operational execution, the reality is that the health department score will be a cakewalk,” he said.
“It’s the ones that are waiting to only impress the health department, those are the ones that struggle.”
Cannon said most of the restaurateurs he consults with are “scared to death of the health department.”
“In reality, the health department is there to help. So even though it’s a scoring process, they’re providing corrective feedback. The reality is that they don’t want you to do poorly.”