Thursday, August 06, 2009

C for Effort

As a Bay Area transplant it's something of a novelty to see the LA County Health Dept. letter grades posted in the window of every diner, taqueria, Walgreens, and Office Depot. Los Angeles diners seem to love those letters, especially when it's because the House of Pies has a B, or so says every fucking person in line for a fucking table at Fred62.

Well, get ready to have your minds blown Los Angeles:

The letter grades don't fucking matter!

Are you startled? Did I shake you up? Good.

Here's why not:

If a restaurant passes its health inspection, what does the score matter? Is there a sliding scale of "possibly-make-you-sick-itude" for restaurants? Am I more likely to die of salmonella at a "C" than I am from an "A"? If I'm at all likely to die of salmonella, shouldn't that be an "F"? Seems to me that a health inspection is a pass/fail proposition. We're determining a business' fitness for serving food to the public, not the quality of its analysis of the theme of the "phallic female" in Hemingway's later works.

So what's the point in the grading system? In what is pure rampant speculation, here's my theory:

1. A restaurant that had an "A" receives a "B."
2. Angelenos with the ingrained belief that these letter grades mean something slow down/stop their patronage of that restaurant.
3. The economic impact forces the restaurant to make rapid adjustments, bringing the Health Dept. back before their next scheduled visit. (Perhaps for a fee?)
4. Health Dept. is able to show that they're relevant, get more funding, hire more inspectors, go on gambling junkets to Macau.

Health Inspector letter grades should go. A restaurant passes and stays open or fails and is shut down. Keep the inspections on file and make them available online to the consumer, but the posting requirement gives the grades more weight than they deserve (I mean, what is the difference between an 88 and a 92 anyway?). Letter grade distinctions are arbitrary and the economic impact of dropping down a letter is too great.

This creates yet another hurdle for restaurants operating in LA and disadvantages new or immigrant-owned restaurants whose operators are not familiar with the byzantine requirements of Los Angeles bureaucracy. It's not that they don't keep a safe restaurant.


Zack said...

"At all likely" is nebulous. If you mean a greater than 0% chance, then all restaurants that serve potentially salmonella-carrying ingredients should get Fs. Presumably this is not what you mean. Some restaurants are more likely than others to follow safe practices, maintain good hygiene, etc. This is, as you realize, a rating of probability. The fact that a given body will or will not contract salmonella is beside the point. This is similar to the role of a bond/stock rating agency like Fitch Ratings. What they gauge is the likelihood that a given bond/stock is a safe place to put your money. They differentiate between AAA, AA+, etc. Consumer Reports, too, will try to judge how likely it is that a given product (say, a car) will have a catastrophic failure. Would you mock a similar ratings system for parachutes? Think I'd avoid the B parachutes, personally.

Of course, it's possible for ratings systems to be poorly run (such as the bond/stock rating agencies in the runup to the financial crisis -- accused of grade inflation, basically). That's not an argument against ratings.

The point about the ratings being poorly run would be valid if true. I don't know if it is. I do think that the threat of customer desertion is not problematic, unless the system is corrupt (as you suspect for god knows what reason). The threat of customer desertion is the enforcement
mechanism being used to keep restaurants hygienic.

Do you consider yourself a misanthrope?

David J.D. said...

I don't know how parachutes are rated personally, but I imagine that they're graded pretty much on a pass/fail basis.

And sure there are bond ratings across a spectrum, but when a pension fund sets their requirements for investment, they simply require bonds at or above a certain grade. In the same way a health department sets a threshold (I believe 70+) for being a "pass."

A numerical analysis of a restaurant is fine (every health department does it), but the motive behind requiring the posting of a letter grade is highly suspect.

The functional distinction between an 88 and a 92 could be that a restaurant put a bucket in the wrong place or a sink whose faucet temp is a couple degrees to cool--essentially nominal. But the distinction between an "A" versus a "B"? That's powerful on the consumer psyche.

If you want a restaurant to have a posted rating, how about the actual numerical score and not the letter? Already by law in most municipalities restaurants have to have their most recent inspection available for customer review if requested.

I sometimes consider myself a misanthrope--mostly when it involves the use of broad distinction in place of critical thinking.

Zack said...

Replacing letter grades with numbers is a good idea. It preserves the transparency and removes the (presumably unintended) psychological gulf between 88 and 92, as you say.

I don't think parachutes are actually graded. I have no idea.

Re: misanthropy: it seems like you dislike the group dynamics of human beings. You don't seem to hate people as individuals (just the idiots). Maybe misanthropy is not the word.

David J.D. said...

Well said. I think that's fair.