The easy thing would have been to go with a conventional letter-grade system, where the lowest "C" is a score of 70 percent and it's considered satisfactory.

Instead, local business owners helping rewrite Kern County's restaurant inspection rules in 2006 cut off "C"s at 75 percent. Any establishment scoring below that must close.

So much for lenience. This was industry agreeing to place public health above business accommodation.

"We eat in restaurants, too," said one of the half-dozen people on the committee of business people, Ralph Fruguglietti, owner of Frugatti's Wood-fired Italian on Coffee Road.

Twelve years later, the overhaul of the county's health inspections and letter-grade rating system has brought routine transparency and greater accountability to a process that had been virtually invisible to consumers. And notably for a county often averse to regulation, industry took the lead.

The program is often characterized as being strict but reasonable: An inspector won't hesitate to close a restaurant suspected of being unsafe, but once the owner reports having made a repair, the inspector tries to hurry back for a re-inspection that could allow the business to open back up.

Measuring success

It's hard to say how much the overhaul may be lowering food-borne illness rates, which can be hard to pinpoint partly because of the difficulty in positively linking illnesses to food sources.

One measure for evaluating success is the rate at which county inspectors find violations bad enough to shut down a restaurant on the spot. That figure has fluctuated in recent years, possibly influenced by varying consumer engagement with the county's complaint-filing system. But it remains a very small share of all inspections in Kern. The great majority of restaurants in the county achieve an "A" grade.

The letter-grade program has, at a minimum, shed light on behind-the-scenes conditions at local restaurants, such that several people dining out one recent night reported having monitored posted grades, even using them to decide whether to enter.

Moreover, the system has increased in transparency and accountability in recent years with the introductions of a consumer-oriented smartphone app and a county rule amendment that judges establishments more harshly if they fail to address prior infractions.

'They were nice'

Amestoy's on the Hill got shut down after scoring a 58 percent during an inspection Oct. 8. A county worker found rat droppings everywhere, from the bar to the kitchen.

Manager Mike Miller said rain last year had left a big hole in the roof at the restaurant-but-mostly-bar at 2303 River Blvd. He had the roof patched but neglected to fix the ceiling, which probably let rats in. He fixed the ceiling, gathered up his pest-control records and was allowed to reopen four days later after earning a "B" grade (88 percent) during a follow-up inspection.

"Listen, I understand why they did it. I addressed the issues and we got right back open," he said.

"They were nice. They were polite. … They handled it the way professionally it should be handled," added Miller, who before another inspection within weeks has been told to fix other deficiencies including an exhaust hood with a filter in need of de-greasing.

Tough but reasonable

Joe Coughlin, owner of Coconut Joe's on California Avenue, said he was honored to be chosen to serve on the committee that rewrote the inspection rules, which to him contained the county's top-performers in restaurant food safety. It was a good idea for the county to bring owners to the table, he said, because it fostered industry support.

The result, he said, was a set of rules in which consumer protection was the top priority, employee safety certifications were the preferred tools for ensuring proper food handling, and inspectors had the authority to order changes to a business. Later, the rules were changed to penalize repeat offenders who he said "clearly were not interested in making their business safer."

Maintaining an "A" grade isn't easy, Coughlin said, "and it shouldn't be. But once you get the system in place, once you get everybody trained, it's not a burden."

Fruguglietti, at Frugatti's, said one of the original ideas was always to have inspectors return quickly after problems have been resolved. The people helping craft the ordinance, with the support of former county Supervisor Mike Rubio, wanted to be fair and reasonable, allowing informalities like faxed repair receipts to serve for scheduling a prompt reinspection.

"It's not a gotcha," Fruguglietti said. "It's set up a situation where the restaurants and the health department work together."

How it works

Before the county Board of Supervisors approved the new system Oct. 17, 2006, consumers very rarely saw restaurant inspection reports. Business owners interacted with the county quietly. Poor health safety marks went unnoticed by customers.

The new system was modeled after letter grades used in other California counties. It assigns facilities 100 points then deducts according to the severity of violation.

These violations, based on federal disease prevention guidelines, range from "non-critical" problems like not having a kit for testing sanitizing solution (a one-point deduction) and "minor" violations such as not having a wiping cloth handy (three points off) to "imminent health hazards" — minus 26 points, automatic fail — for things like a sewage overflow or inadequate refrigeration. Letter grades must be posted prominently at the establishment.

Some businesses get inspected by the county but are not issued grades, such as mobile food trucks and temporary food facilities. School cafeterias get graded just like restaurants do.

There is an appeals process during which prior grades are put back up while the owner or operator seeks a review. While some of these do lead to a reversal, officials say the more common response is to address problems. Restaurants can reopen in hours or the process can take weeks, even months.

Restaurants pay a per-visit fee of about $250 to get inspected one to three times per year, depending on risk factors like whether they rely heavily on canned and frozen foods or use more fresh, potentially hazardous ingredients.

Consumers can check restaurant ratings remotely using the city's free app, Safe Diner, which can also be used to file a complaint about a food-service establishment. Kern County Public Health Director Matt Constantine said the popular ratings website Yelp! has contacted the county about integrating grades into its restaurant reviews.

Constantine noted the county makes personalized health training inspectors available to restaurants that have failed inspections. The goal, he said, is to teach kitchen staff and managers what to do and how to keep consumers safe if a refrigerator stops working or some other crisis arises.

Consumer awareness

Delano resident Judy Martinez, dining with her family at Jin Sushi on 19th Street the other day, said she looks for the letter grades and would hesitate to enter a restaurant with a "B".

"Why is it a 'B'? Why isn't it an 'A'?" she asked.

Mayra Ivy, heading into Mama Roomba on Eye Street with her husband, Earnest, said she would consider a restaurant with a "C" grade questionable, "unless someone told me it's really good."

John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf.

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