The second-most populous county in Pennsylvania is planning to hike fines on restaurants that violate food safety regulations after local lawmakers refused to adopt the posting of letter grades. Officials with the Allegheny County Health Department in Pittsburgh are reportedly at work drafting the new plan and hope to start instituting higher fines and posting more public alerts about problem restaurants this fall.

A restaurant in New York City posts its letter grade from the most recent health inspection.
According to Jim Thompson, the department’s deputy director of environmental health, the idea is to send a message of deterrence to restaurants with serious and/or recurring violations. The Allegheny County Council voted down a proposal in May to require local restaurants to publicly post letter grades. “Now, we’re looking at all the tools in the toolbox that we already have, and utilizing them to create the deterrent,” Thompson said. The new policy wouldn’t need adoption by the council, although the department plans to review it with the board of health and implement it within 30 days after that. Allegheny County’s current fee structure sets the highest restaurant fine at $200-300 for the most serious violations. The new regime would base fines on criteria including the size of the restaurant, the scope of the problem, whether the violation was willful or not, and whether it was a repeat violation. Thompson noted that some fines under the new policy could be as high as $1,000-2,000. The health department’s main focus would be on repeat offenders, he added. A spokesman for a local restaurant group said he was in favor of the changes because while there weren’t a lot of bad actors, those who weren’t conscientious should be punished. New York City adopted the letter-grade system five years ago and recently reported that 95 percent of restaurants there now earn A grades and that violations associated with foodborne illnesses have dropped by 11 percent.

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