Green, Yellow, Red: Colored Health Scores Coming to Silicon Valley Restaurants

Judgment day has arrived for Silicon Valley restaurants: a scoring system has come to town.

In a unanimous vote today, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors approved a colored placarding and scoring system[pdf]. Previously, no scoring system existed in Silicon Valley either in the physical restaurants or online, leaving customers with no way of knowing how restaurants fared on inspections.

Now, restaurants that pass inspections by the county’s Environmental Health Department will have a green score card in their windows. Those receiving two or more major violations will have a yellow card and those failing an inspection will have a red card.

The county will also post more detailed information online, including number scores for individual restaurants and a list of the violations received.

The move comes over a year after the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit exposed a broken system where restaurants didn’t know the rules and customers were getting very little information.

The NBC Bay Area investigation revealed that Silicon Valley not only lacked grades or scores posted in restaurants, but that the county’s Environmental Health website had confusing, jumbled information that was unclear to consumers what violations restaurants had incurred and what they meant.

The Investigative Unit also showed that many Silicon Valley restaurants were unaware of the only rule holding them accountable: state law. California requires employees to show customers their latest inspection report, if asked. The Investigative Unit’s hidden cameras revealed that 90% of the restaurants asked refused to show it.

After the report, the Board formed a task force of stake holders consisting of restaurant owners and consumers that met 17 times this year to discuss potential scoring systems to use in Santa Clara County.

The colored placarding system, similar to that used in Sacramento, was the final decision.

“We believe this new rating system is going to give our existing customers and our new customers the added confidence to continue eating with us,” Dave Powell, owner of El Guapo’s Mexican restaurant in Campbell, told NBC Bay Area.

“I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years and its shocking to me that it’s just happening now,” Powell said.

“It’s been a long time coming,” County supervisor Joe Simitian, told NBC Bay Area. Simitian pushed for a grading system in 2000 before serving as a state senator. Now, upon returning to the Board, he took up the cause of getting restaurants scored, after the NBC Bay Area investigation.

“I think it gives consumers the information they need when they make a choice about where they are going to eat and I think it gives restaurants an incentive to do an even better job in terms of food health and safety,” he said.

“This is public information, this is information consumers ought to have and if they want to go to a place that scores 98 instead of 62, more power to them, but they can’t do that if they don’t have the information,” Simitian added.

Those opposing the system today include the Restaurant Association and the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce.Both groups argue that the online scoring system is confusing and unnecessary.

The Chamber sent a letter to the board[pdf], pushing for a pass-fail system, writing “this idea is thorough and easy to understand” and that the colored system is “far more confusing”.

“This is as common sense and simple as it can be,” Simitian insisted today. “It took longer than it should, but bottom line is we are in the right place today.”

The score cards will start appearing in restaurant windows this fall.

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