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Restaurant letter gradings


Last updated 6/14/2007 at Noon

When a favorite restaurant recently posted a card with a “C,” I refused to eat at the establishment and decided to find out what the San Diego County letter grading system really means.

According to county authorities, San Diego County requires all restaurants to post an “A,” “B” or “C” card in the front window. The grade reflects the sanitation level during the last inspection. An “A” grade means there are no significant violations; “B” is passing but indicates that there are problems; “C” is a failing grade. A “C” rated establishment has 30 days to earn a passing grade or it will be ordered closed.

San Diego County Code requires all food handlers to possess either a valid food handler card issued by a county-authorized food handler training school or pass a County of San Diego food handler test administered by the current food safety manager, who has passed a state-approved food safety certification exam. California State Law requires that each food facility must have at least one owner/employee who has passed a state-approved food safety certification exam.

The County of San Diego Department of Environmental Health Food and Housing Division inspects food facilities during routine surprise inspections throughout the year. All inspection reports are public information and the establishment is required to hold the last inspection report and provide it for viewing when requested by a customer.

The county does not publish a list of the gradings of restaurants but does urge the public to look for the grade card and to contact the department with any concerns or questions.

The inspection frequency is based on the risks each establishment presents. For instance, a facility that sells only packaged candy is inspected less frequently than a facility that engages in full processing of potentially hazardous foods. The risk of food-borne illness is less in non-potentially hazardous foods like candy. The county health department is committed to food safety principles and strives for positive public health outcomes.

Even street vendors and San Diego County Fair vendors are inspected and evaluated for compliance with the California Uniform Retail Food Facilities Law (CURFFL). Local amusement parks such as Sea World and the Wild Animal Park must also comply with CURFFL. Anyone who sells food at a temporary event that is open to the general public is required to obtain a valid health permit to operate in compliance with CURFFL. However, they are not required to post a grade card because they are temporary in nature.

Have you ever purchased a cake from a bake sale and wondered if it was really safe to eat? Nonprofit charitable events may sell baked goods that have been made in a private home because baked goods are usually not potentially hazardous. Bacteria do not grow in them because they generally have low water activity and bacteria need water to survive. Also, baking is a process that cooks food to a high temperature and high temperatures kill microorganisms. However, the baked goods must be protected from contamination at all times when offered for sale.

All retail food facilities are inspected by highly educated and dedicated registered environmental health specialists who possess science-based degrees. They educate all food facilities operators and urge them to employ practices that minimize the specific risks associated with the food they serve. A Food Facility Self-Inspection Checklist developed by the health specialists helps food facility operators comply with the law. The checklist mirrors the official inspection report and can be obtained by contacting the County.

This checklist represents the major areas evaluated during a routine inspection and has twelve different categories, including Food Safety, Temperature Control, Personnel, Water and Sewage, Equipment, Utensils, Floors/Walls/Ceilings, Toilet/Dressing Room/Handwashing Sinks, Light and Ventilation, Pest Control, Refuse and Operation.

Certain “Food Safety” items that go beyond the obvious include that “adequate protection is provided for all paper products, food products are labeled and stored in nontoxic containers and all foods are stored a minimum of six inches off the floor.”

San Diego was the first county in California to implement the restaurant grading system in 1947. The inspection system has evolved over the years and is based on food safety risk. Points deducted on an inspection report are weighted toward the risk factor violations and public health interventions. The grading system is contained within the San Diego County Code of Regulatory Ordinances.

All counties in California currently enforce the California Uniform Retail Food Facilities Law; however, beginning July 1 a new food safety law called the California Retail Food Code becomes effective.

For further information contact: Department of Environmental Health Food & Housing Division, PO Box 129261, San Diego, CA 92112-9261. Telephone: (619) 338-2379 or (800) 253-9933. E-mail: [email protected], or access the Web site

Julayne Gath, REHS, is Supervising Environmental Health Specialist for San Diego County Department of Environmental Health, Food and Housing Division.


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