Under a color-coded grading system implemented in July, restaurants in Alameda County – but not in Berkeley – are now required to post green, yellow, or red placards in their windows to display food safety inspection results.
Berkeley is one of four cities in the state with an independent environmental health department and it makes its own rules regarding restaurant inspections. But with the implementation of the easy-to-understand county system, Berkeley officials are considering the adoption of a similar program to make things uniform.
“It’s something that the rest of the jurisdictions are thinking about, to have some consistency within the Bay Area,” said Manuel Ramirez, Berkeley environmental health director. “There’s no sense of a timeline at this point, but it is being discussed.”
County officials say the visibility of the inspection results and the accessible color code will empower consumers and encourage food facilities to meet safety standards. Some Berkeley restaurateurs say they would be proud to post a placard in their windows.
“We’ve had flying colors in every inspection,” said Alicia Ellis, manager of Phil’s Sliders, a hamburger spot that arrived on Shattuck Ave. about a year ago. “If you’re handling your business the way you should be, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.” A green card in the window might attract customers and inspire neighboring businesses to keep up, Ellis said.
“I’m in favor of transparency,” said Marcia Masse, owner of Masse’s Pastries on north Shattuck Ave. “It encourages high standards and good food handling practices. We have nothing to hide.”
Next door to Masse’s, Saul’s Delicatessen similarly receives consistent good marks during inspections, but co-owner Karen Adelman has a different take on the county’s new rule.
“I think it’s more complex than a color code,” Adelman said. Under the county’s system, red indicates that a facility is set to be shut down, yellow signifies two or more major violations of the health code, and green means a business had no major violations. A follow-up inspection after a yellow placard is issued results in a promotion to a green card or a suspension of a facility’s health permit, but the yellow card may be visible in the window for up to a week.
Adelman said there is a wide range of violations that can result in a yellow card, and a temporary or harmless mistake may permanently deter customers.
“Customers aren’t stupid,” she said. “They can walk into a bathroom or a kitchen and smell or see how clean it is. They can ask to see certain information. There is already a stringent health code and I personally don’t think it’s constructive to have a color in your window.”
George Wendt, an Oakland resident who works and eats in Berkeley, said he would be unlikely to walk into a restaurant with a yellow placard and thinks he might miss out on a good—and benign—meal if the City adopted the system.
“It’s misleading. Any information that doesn’t come with a definitive definition of what the colors mean can screw over the company as well as the consumer,” Wendt said.
Other consumers say they deserve easy access to inspection results.
Over a deli sandwich at Saul’s, Berkeley resident Sterling Brown said he thinks posting the scores should be mandatory. “As a consumer and a tax payer, you should even be able to look into a kitchen,” he said. “You have nothing to hide if you’re doing the right thing.”
When he visits San Diego, Brown sometimes spends a few extra dollars on the “chef’s table” option, where customers at higher end restaurants can eat in the kitchen. San Diego and Los Angeles counties both require food facilities to post A, B, or C letter grades in their windows. In Northern California, Sacramento County has used a color code since 2007.
In Berkeley, where facilities are inspected one to four times a year, consumers can enter individual restaurants in an online database and find a summary of the inspection results. Checkmarks reveal whether a facility had a major or minor violation in five different categories, and as soon as the violation is corrected the mark is removed. Some results are temporarily missing because the City recently converted to a new data management system and is not finished entering information, Ramirez said.
Nicki Rivieccio, co-owner of PiQ on Shattuck Ave., used to work under the color system in Sacramento, but doubts the program would change business dynamics in Berkeley, where customers may not be fixated on cleanliness.
“I think it gives customers some sense of safety and confidence, but I haven’t noticed that people really care,” he said. “It’s Berkeley!”
Want to get a digest of all the day’s Berkeley news in your email inbox at the end of your day? Click here to subscribe to Berkeleyside’s free Daily Briefing.