Restaurant Safety: How Does the Grading System Work?

A cook in a restaurant kitchen holding a plate of food practices restaurant safety.

Salmonella, norovirus, E. coli — 48 million people get sick from these and other foodborne germs every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Approximately 128,000 of those who get sick end up in the hospital, and 3,000 of those die. The number of these largely preventable illnesses and deaths highlights the importance of foodborne illness prevention.

Restaurant grading systems not only help promote compliance with food and restaurant safety regulations meant to protect people from foodborne illnesses. They also help diners make informed choices about where they eat. Additionally, people in the food service industry benefit from learning strategies that can help allay growing food safety concerns prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Restaurant Grading System Defined

Many city and state health departments have created restaurant grading systems as a part of larger food safety management programs. These systems aim to address practices that can cause viral, bacterial, and contaminant-based foodborne illnesses. Restaurant grading systems assign scores to eating establishments indicating their level of compliance with local food safety rules.

Health departments determine a restaurant’s score or grade by conducting routine, announced on-site inspections. During these inspections, trained public health professionals evaluate the restaurant’s sanitary conditions, paying specific attention to issues such as:

  • Hygiene
  • Food sources (food must come from approved sources, e.g., meat must come from facilities that meet USDA standards)
  • Cooking temperatures
  • Food handling and storage practices
  • Cleaning and sanitization practices

If inspectors find violations in any of these areas, they assign points to the restaurant. Violations more likely to cause foodborne illnesses have higher point values. For example, serving unwashed raw vegetables will likely be assessed more points than allowing a line cook to work without wearing a hair restraint.

At the end of these inspections, examiners tally up the points and calculate a final score that they communicate to eating establishments on the spot. Inspectors also explain the violations and recommend ways to address them. Grades represent the extent to which establishments meet health codes. Establishments must post these grades in their windows for the public to see.

In a recent study published in the journal Food Control, food service operators reported that publicly disclosing inspection results encourages their compliance with regulations.

Health departments give restaurants opportunities to correct violations and improve their scores. This often involves handing out pending grades and reinspecting facilities within about a month’s time, so restaurants have a chance to eliminate unsanitary practices and issues.

When inspectors discover egregious violations that pose imminent health risks, such as pest infestations or sewage backups, they close the eating establishments immediately. In these cases, health departments review the violations with the restaurants and outline what the restaurants need to remedy to be eligible to reopen.

The Meaning of Different Restaurant Grades

Restaurant grading systems vary by state and sometimes by city. Variations primarily occur in the grade formats and point delineations used. For example, some systems use letters for grades, while others use numbers or colors. Still others use emojis.

As for point delineations, some restaurant grading systems, such as New York City’s, assign establishments an initial score of zero at the start of an inspection. Points are added to that score for each violation. Lower scores therefore indicate greater compliance with food safety rules. Boston, on the other hand, uses a system that starts with an initial score of 100 and subtracts points for every violation. In such a system, lower scores indicate less compliance.

Health departments that use letter grades generally assign restaurants an A, B, or C grade. These letters typically mean:

  • A: The restaurant has minimal to no food safety rule violations.
  • B: The restaurant has minor food safety rule violations that need to be corrected.
  • C: The restaurant has numerous food safety rule violations that put it at risk of closure.

Several issues can impact these grades. Critical issues that carry higher penalty points may include:

  • Storing food at the wrong temperature
  • Using the same cutting board to prepare raw meat and other foods
  • Using bare hands instead of utensils on “ready to eat” food
  • Food workers failing to wash their hands after handling raw poultry
  • Storing toxic chemicals next to food

Less critical violations that still carry penalty points may include:

  • Improperly thawing food
  • Inaccurate thermometers in a refrigerator
  • No sign at a hand-washing facility reminding employees they must wash their hands
  • Improperly installed ventilation systems

Health departments often determine how frequently to inspect a restaurant based on the restaurant’s grade. The better the grade, the less frequent the inspections. In general, all restaurants should expect at least one inspection every 10 to 12 months.

So what grade do most restaurants earn? It is hard to say given the differences among grading systems. However, Dr. Stueven’s Dining Grades, a project that examines public health inspection scores from across the country and converts them into standardized letter grades, suggests more than 80 percent of restaurants receive A grades.

Restaurant Grading System Resources

Many resources exist that can help professionals in food safety, restaurateurs, diners, etc. better understand how restaurant grading systems work.

The following resources include case studies, tool kits, and publications related to restaurant inspections, food safety, and the regulatory system. Here, individuals can find meaningful insights and information about existing restaurant grading systems, how to prepare for an inspection, restaurant safety, and more.

“Restaurant Inspections Checklist and Guide” is a blog post from 7shifts that offers an in-depth look at how typical restaurant inspections work along with tips and a checklist to help establishments prepare for inspections.

The Healthy Food Policy Project examines in this case study how the city of Seattle worked to address an inconsistent food safety rating program. The study analyzes how the city developed new policies and the main barriers it faced in establishing an equitable restaurant grading system.

“Making the Grade: Rethinking the U.S. Food Retail Inspection and Rating Regulatory System”, published in the California Law Review, studies the restaurant grading systems of New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle before exploring the issues that can arise without a standardized restaurant grading system model.

Food Safety Magazine explores science-based food safety solutions. Its articles help support strategic decision-making for professionals designing food safety programs.

“A Guide to Develop a Food Grading Program in Your Community”, created by the City of Newton Department of Health and Human Services, provides a tool kit for implementing a restaurant grading program along with policies and procedures.

The CDC’s Restaurant Food Safety Findings in Plain Language offers information on food safety studies and suggestions for policies and best practices that can help food service establishments reduce foodborne illnesses.

“What to Expect When You’re Inspected: A Guide for Food Service Operators” was written for New York City restaurants by the New York City Health Department. It details the city’s inspection procedures along with a thorough rundown of the violations and inspection scoring parameters relevant for New York City food service operators.

Restaurant Inspections in Your Area, compiled by Food Safety News, provides links to restaurant inspection records from across the country.

The Journal of Food Safety, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, publishes research about foodborne illnesses, food safety, and food safety programs.

QSR magazine keeps up with the latest news and trends in the restaurant industry, providing articles and reports on food safety, hygiene and sanitation, food safety compliance, and more.

Food Safety News, a daily news outlet, publishes articles about foodborne illness outbreaks, food science, food safety programs, and more.

The Importance of the Restaurant Grading System

Regularly dining in restaurants and ordering food for takeout or delivery has become commonplace for many, according to data from Statista. Although large numbers of people stopped going to restaurants due to the pandemic, many are excited to return to their old habits.

However, diners need to think about more than just the coronavirus when eating out. Numerous studies have linked restaurants to foodborne illnesses. This underscores the importance of robust restaurant safety programs.

Restaurant grading systems, for example, can play a valuable role in protecting restaurant patrons’ health in the following ways:

Improving Restaurant Safety

Research shows a link between posted restaurant grades and reductions in food-borne illnesses. A study published in Emerging Infectious Diseases found that New York City saw yearly salmonella infection rates drop by 5.3 percent after implementing its restaurant grading system.

Another study published in the Journal of Food Protection examined data from the Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System (FDOSS), a CDC program that gathers information on foodborne disease outbreaks from state and local health departments. Researchers found a positive correlation between posted restaurant grades and fewer foodborne illness outbreaks.

Such positive impacts on public health make a strong case for the adoption of restaurant grading systems across the country.

Increasing Awareness of Food Safety Among Diners

Posted grades can help raise public awareness of food safety and restaurant safety. This greater awareness helps empower consumers to make informed decisions about what establishments they patronize.

Diners who investigate what restaurant grades mean also have the opportunity to learn about food safety issues unknown to them. For example, they may learn new details about cross-contamination or the dangers of canned food items that have become swollen. Individuals can then apply this knowledge to how they manage food in their own kitchens.

All in all, restaurant grading systems help put food safety issues on the public’s radar. This heightened awareness could help address the problem of foodborne illnesses outside of restaurants as well.

Giving Restaurants Incentives to Meet the Highest Safety Standards

Grading systems increase the visibility of a restaurant’s health code compliance. Restaurants understand that poor grades can scare off customers and harm business. This gives them an incentive to meet the highest safety standards.

While a C grade may allow a restaurant to stay open, it could easily result in lost customers. On the other hand, most restaurant owners see an A grade, or its equivalent in another grading system, as good for business. A high grade can increase diners’ confidence in a restaurant’s safety, and this may lead to increased patronage and higher revenue.

Food Safety and the Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has hit the restaurant industry hard, creating labor challenges and hurting sales. The pandemic has also sharpened concerns about food safety. Both health departments and food service establishments recognize the increased importance of food safety during public health crises.

Diners, too, have come to expect clear information about the safety protocols restaurants are taking to safeguard their customers’ and their employees’ health. To thrive in today’s restaurant industry, businesses must focus on increasing their transparency and accountability regarding food safety.

To assure their patrons that they take food safety seriously, many restaurants now publish their food safety protocols and policies through:

  • Signage
  • Posts on social media
  • Flyers attached to delivery and takeout orders
  • Additions to their websites
  • Posts on online review platforms such as Yelp

Resources for Restaurant Safety During the Pandemic

Food service establishments can benefit from extra guidance on restaurant safety issues related to the pandemic. The following resources can serve as useful tools for restaurants interested in putting best practices in place in response to the coronavirus.

COVID-19 Operating Guidance: A Guide for the Restaurant Industry, created by the National Restaurant Association, offers direction to food service establishments on food safety, monitoring employee health and personal hygiene, cleaning and sanitizing, and more.

The CDC’s Food and Food System Resources During COVID-19 Pandemic provides various links to resources containing information on food safety, guidance on business practices, and tips for protecting employees and customers

Safety First: Protecting Workers and Diners as Restaurants Reopen provides ready-made infographics and summaries about restaurant safety that restaurants can display, as well as free online training courses.

Explore What It Takes to Promote Restaurant Safety

Promoting food safety in restaurants requires thoughtful strategizing. Well-designed restaurant grading systems can empower health departments, food service establishments, and the public to reduce foodborne illnesses. Individuals in the industry can develop and advocate for effective food safety programs by examining current programs and seeking out ways to improve and reproduce them.