The Coast Guard’s 65 signal flags and pennants were part of Scott Benson’s life for 20 years. He retired with the rank of Commander and now finds himself an elected Detroit City Councilmember, chairing the Public Health and Safety Committee.

Those signal flags might explain why Benson prefers color-coded signs over letter grades for letting the public know where a restaurant stands with the city’s health department.

Benson has the Detroit Health Department looking at Columbus, OH, which uses color-coded signs for posting restaurant inspection ratings. New York City requires restaurants to post A-B-C letter grades.

Columbus requires restaurants, grocery stores, public pools, tattoo parlors, and various other entities to post the results of their most recent health department inspection with a color-coded sign. Detroit is using Columbus as a model for the proposed ordinance sponsored by Benson. Here’s how the Ohio city explains it:

The Columbus System

These dated and color-coded signs inform the public of the most recent inspection conducted, and show what standing the business is in regarding that inspection. Use this signage system with other information, such as the detailed online inspection results, to make healthy and safe choices about where to eat, play, live and work in the City of Columbus.

Green Sign - small Green Sign: All standard inspections have been conducted and the business has met the standards of Columbus Public Health.
Yellow Sign - small Yellow Sign: All businesses that are in the enforcement process due to uncorrected critical violations found during follow-up inspections.
White Sign - small White Sign: All businesses placed on an increased frequency of inspections.
Red Sign - small Red Sign: All businesses that the Board of Health or the Health Commissioner has ordered closed.

Detroit restauranters are wary about the Columbus system. Benson said work on the new system began after Detroit’s hepatitis A outbreak. The city’s health department wants a system with incentives for improvement, and the public favors more transparency.

Benson’s proposed ordinance has yet to be written or introduced, but he said that should happen by the end of the year. The councilman has requested the city’s health and law departments begin work on drafting rules and formalize their recommendations for writing the ordinance.

Initially, the Detroit Restaurant and Lodging Association feared Benson might import New York’s A-B-C letter grade system to the Motor City. The local association now plans to work with Benson and the health department to “find solutions that maximize customer safety.”

Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association President Justin Winslow says the restaurant industry needs to know more about the color-coded system. He calls grading a “tricky practice” because it can signal “potential risk to the consumer.”

New York City began using letter grades in 2010. Other major cities like Los Angeles, Boston and Montreal have followed. New York officials attribute a 41 percent decline in sanitary violations between 2012 and 2017 to the letter grading system.

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