Ashland voters will decide in November whether restaurants must post grades based on their most recent Jackson County health inspection scores.

Ashland voters will decide in November whether restaurants must post grades based on their most recent Jackson County health inspection scores.

A restaurant that scored 90 points or more would get an "A," one that received a score of 80 to 89 would get a "B" and one that got a score of 70 to 79 would receive a "C."

A restaurant would have to post its grade in its front window or in an approved display case within five feet of the door.

Restaurants that score below 70 fail the county's health inspection. They must get a new inspection and pass in order to remain open.

The county posts number scores for restaurants on its Web site at www.co.jackson.or.us/files/restaurantinspections.pdf.

A state law that required restaurants to post letter grades based on their scores was rescinded about 15 years ago due to pressure from the restaurant industry, said Ashland resident John Jory.

Jory collected enough signatures to place the proposal to grade Ashland restaurants on the ballot after he became sick following a 2007 meal at a downtown restaurant that has since closed. The restaurant had a score of 75 from a March 2007 inspection.

"Out of the 1,800 people I talked to, fewer than 10 had ever looked at the county Web site," he said. "Although it's public information, it's rather hidden."

Restaurant owners react

The Oregon Restaurant Association has come out against the measure. Many local restaurant owners also said they are concerned.

Jason Doss, the owner of Chateaulin Restaurant & Bar said he opposes the measure. Chateaulin has scored 98, 100, 97 and 100 during inspections from 2006 into this year.

Doss said the county already has a health inspection system and adding city grading would be too expensive.

City employees estimated the grading system would cost $40,000 to $60,000 to administer and enforce. There are about 117 restaurants in town.

"I think it's ridiculous when we have a system that shows very fairly what a restaurant scores. It's a system that works. There doesn't need to be another system," Doss said.

Another owner of a restaurant with scores all in the "A" range said he doesn't see why other restaurants are so opposed to the measure. He asked to remain anonymous.

"If you're getting down in the C or D range, that's a problem," he said.

He said he thinks the city has overestimated the cost to administer and enforce the grading system. Yet he said restaurants are already under pressure from the city because of its strict sign code and the penalties it assigns if businesses are late making meals tax payments.

"It's another headache I don't think the city needs to be involved in, quite frankly," he said.

Scores up and down

Many Ashland restaurants have scores that fluctuate from year to year and even within the same year. Inspections are supposed to be semi-annual.

Standing Stone Brewing Co. received an 88, a 76 and a 90 from 2006 into 2008.

Co-owner Alex Amarotico said a score can depend on which health inspector happens to do an inspection.

"We're not really doing anything differently. We're doing the best we can and the health inspector is different," he said.

Amarotico said restaurants lose points for things that are unrelated to the safety of food, like if a painted shelf has a scratch.

He would rather see a system like that in Berkeley, Calif., where restaurants have notices that their latest health inspection report can be viewed upon request. That way, customers can read it and see exactly why a restaurant lost points.

Although restaurants get inspected again if they fail, the county does not change the number score from the failed inspection that it posts on its Web site.

Amarotico noted that the ballot measure has no language for if a restaurant scores in the "D" or "F" range.

Jory said since the city would be administering the grading system, it could issue a letter based on a restaurant's score after it had been reinspected and passed county standards.

As for point deductions for things unrelated to food safety, Jory said the powerful restaurant industry should lobby to have fewer points taken off for those violations rather than fighting a grading system.

Señor Sam's Manager Alice Drysdale said she also sees point deductions for minor things. For example, a restaurant will lose five points if a refrigerator is not keeping meat cold enough, but it will also lose five points if an employee is drinking a beverage without using a straw.

Since 2006, Señor Sam's in Ashland has received scores of 92, 83, 79, 90 and 90.

Drysdale said the 79 came when two careless employees — who no longer work for the restaurant — were both working. One had a quesadilla in the back where eating is not allowed. The restaurant also had some shelves that needed to be replaced.

"As a consumer, who wouldn't want what this man's proposing? I understand. But people need to really know what's going on with the health inspections," Drysdale said.

Like Amarotico, she said health inspectors vary, with some interested in educating restaurant workers and others with a more punitive style.

She said restaurants that received less than "A" scores would lose business.

Jory said research shows restaurants that receive an "A" or "B" grade get more business, while only restaurants with "C" grades lose business.

He said grading systems are proven to be effective in reducing illness.

According to a 2005 Journal of Environmental Health article, the number of hospitalizations from food-borne illness fell by 13 percent in Los Angeles County after that county began publicly posting restaurant letter grades.

"It's not meant to be anti-business," Jory said. "Where it's been done, restaurants that are clean get more business. I just would like all the restaurants to be clean."

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com. To post a comment, visit www.dailytidings.com.