Restaurant grades-- you see them, usually when you enter a restaurant. They are an assurance or a warning to consumers about the food they are about to eat.
Yet ‘Five On Your Side Investigates’ has learned that almost every restaurant in the city of St. Louis gets an 'A' grade from the city health department.
That may seem like a cause for celebration, but we took a closer look and found reasons for concern.
"Apparently, the scores are being biased toward the restaurant," said Roy Costa, an internationally known expert in food safety and restaurant inspection.
Costa says that may mean you being exposed to possible health risks.
Take a place like Delmar Chop Suey, just south of Grand Center.
Their inspection record shows that city of St. Louis health department has given them nothing but a grade of “A” for a number of years.
"I'm clean, I know that," owner Jimmy Lam told us.
But in the records for one of the establishment inspections, we found something disturbing.
A 2015 inspection there turned up five violations, two of them extremely serious, including live roaches in the kitchen.
"That's one of the key things that inspectors are supposed to not allow to be occurring. In a lot of jurisdictions that's grounds for closure of the establishment, "Costa tells us.
Instead, the City of St. Louis inspector gave Delmar Chop Suey an ‘A’ that day.
So, what's going on? Well, what happened that day was not unusual.
Five On Your Side Investigates examined more than 10,000 City of St. Louis restaurant inspections and found that approximately 96 percent of them resulted in an 'A'.
Food safety experts say that the possibility of so many inspections ending in As, is, as one said it, “extremely, extremely unlikely” and “suspicious”.
All of them agreed that some form of artificial “grade inflation” was occurring.
Roy Costa called the grades practically “meaningless.”
So we asked Pat Mahoney of the City Health Department about it.
She oversees the City of St. Louis’ restaurant inspection program.
"Well, it is what it is," she said of the astoundingly high proportion of restaurants getting an ‘A’.
So what could be contributing to this?
First, inspectors look for violations, of which “critical violations” pose the biggest public threat. That’s because they are the sort of violations most likely to lead to you ill, specifically from food-borne illness.
So when a restaurant has two such violations, cities generally take it seriously. In fact, St. Louis has a policy about such an event: "When two of these occur during an inspection, the grade is dropped to 'B' or 'C'."
But Five On Your Side Investigates discovered restaurant after restaurant in the city of St. Louis where inspectors turned up two, three, even four or more critical violations. Yet not only was the grade not dropped, often the restaurant ended up with an 'A'.
For example, the day Delmar Chop Suey got an 'A' while roaches ran through its kitchen, it also had two critical violations. Hence the grade should have dropped to a 'B' according to city policy.
So we asked the St. Louis Health Department about it.
"They're working on the problem. They've brought in exterminators," Mahoney explained about the top grade.
Owner Jimmy Lamm confirmed that.
"Yeah, we have a contract for two years," he said.
But what this instance demonstrated is an practice of the inspection department: You see, in St. Louis if an inspector finds two or more critical violations, a restaurant can still get a second chance.
Supervisor Mahoney explained: "If they correct violations while the inspector is there they are not subject to downgrading at that point.”
But most experts agree that an inspection is supposed to be a snap-shot of the conditions in a restaurant. Hence, they say that ‘the city’s second chance’ amounts to “retouching the photograph”.
"That makes the grade invalid, "said Costa even saying that it is a “misrepresentation” to the public.
Five On Your Side Investigates also found another problem:
Whether it’s grade school or a health department doing restaurant inspections in another city such as Los Angeles, usually letter grading breaks down like this-
- 100 to 90 is an ‘A”
- 89 to 80 is a “B”
- 79 to 70 is a “C”
But when it comes to grading restaurants in St. Louis, the City Health Department does it this way-
- 100 to 85 is an ‘A”
- 85 to 71 is a “B”
- 71 and below is a “C”
Our experts' reaction?
How St. Louis defines an 'A' or 'B' may be lowering the standard of cleanliness for City of St. Louis restaurants.
"I would definitely not want to eat in a B restaurant in St. Louis,” said Costa.
That’s what the China King Express on Gravois was when we visited it in November, according to city inspection documents. Yet the restaurant still had an “A” posted on their front window.
Either way: The restaurant has had about 25 percent Bs and about 75 percent As.
But can make up a ‘B'?
Take a 2014 inspection where a city inspector found a total of six non-critical and six critical violations. The latter included a front line cook who was blowing his nose into his apron, wiping his nose while cooking, and had open sores on his arms.
Costa said not only did the cook pose a possible risk for standard forms of food-borne illness, but depending on his state of health, he could have been a risk for tuberculosis, meningitis, and staph.
We brought that to the attention of Pat Mahoney.
"Oh yeah he should not be cooking, "she said.
And yet, that day China King Express still managed to get a 'B'.
Finally, expert Roy Costa believes that the restaurant inspectors are doing a good job spotting and writing up violations. So he said ‘forget the grade,’ and read the actual inspection reports if you want to know what’s going on at your favorite eatery.
For more on the reports issues over the City of St. Louis, click here.