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Show me the grade! Data for dining out

02.jul.04, Rhonda Gerrits and Brae Surgeoner, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

02.jul.04, Rhonda Gerrits and Brae Surgeoner, Commentary from the Food Safety Network
After the discovery of mad cow disease in Canada last May and in the U.S. last December, both countries announced significantly expanded testing for bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE. Both countries know that, the harder they look, the greater the chance they will uncover more cases of BSE in their respective cattle populations.
Last Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced another possible case of mad cow disease. Again this Wednesday. Regardless of the final test results, the announcement marked an important shift in how the U.S. government communicates with consumers.
The new, rapid tests being employed are prone to error, so the question is: should the public be informed every time an initial test raises the possibility of a positive, or should the public only be informed of a confirmed BSE positive? The U.S. has decided that people can handle the information, uncertainties and all.
Good for them.
The same philosophy of transparency and openness underlies the efforts of many local health units across North America in seeking to make available the results of restaurant inspections. In the absence of regular media exposes, or a reality TV show where camera crews follow an inspector into a restaurant unannounced, how do consumers -- diners -- know which of their favourite restaurants are safe?
In 2002, the city of Toronto implemented a color grading system of green (pass), yellow (conditional pass) and red (closed). Toronto’s move to action was a direct response to one reporter's week-long media blitz entitled Dirty Dining, published in the Toronto Star in 2000, and the subsequent public outcry for information.
The aim of implementing any grading system is, ultimately, to reduce the number of foodborne illnesses. The purpose for implementation is threefold:
publicly available grading systems rapidly communicate to diners the potential risk in dining at a particular establishment; restaurants given a lower grade will be more likely to comply with health regulations in the future to prevent lost business (as borne out in an analysis of the Toronto disclosure system); and, restaurant operators are forced to make organizational changes to day-to-day operations.
The Toronto grading system addresses public concern and quickly feeds discerning consumers' increasing hunger for more information through a convenient and consistent inspection reporting method. More importantly, such public displays of information help bolster overall awareness of safe food handling practices.
In Guelph, Ont., the self-proclaimed capital of Canadian food safety, consumers rely on a more traditional disclosure system of restaurant inspection reports. A consumer who wants to view an inspector’s report must file a written request with the Board of Health and await a response in the mail.
Comparatively, Waterloo Region has developed a web site for diners and others to view inspection reports; and in Halton Region, restaurants can voluntarily post a Certificate of Inspection which informs diners that a summary inspection report, outlining whether the restaurant has met basic food safety standards as required by provincial legislation, is available for public viewing in the restaurant. Several American cities have adopted letter or numerical grading systems to be publicly displayed at the establishment.
Regardless of the disclosure system -- and there are benefits and drawbacks to each system -- the goal is to provide information to a hungry public.
Like USDA's efforts with mad cow disease, the correct assumption is that the public can handle more, not less, information about food safety.
In Guelph, if we want more information, we'll have to demand it, and wait four-to-six weeks before dining out.
Rhonda Gerrits and Brae Surgeoner are researchers with the Food Safety network at the University of Guelph.