County explores issuing colored placards on restaurant inspection status 

San Mateo County is planning to implement a new color-coded placard system to help consumers better identify how restaurants have scored on health department food safety inspections.

Pending approval from the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, the current rating system — in which detailed written reports from health inspectors are required to be publicly displayed — will be replaced in 2016 with placards bearing the same colors the public is used to seeing on traffic lights.

Green placards will indicate that a facility has passed its most recent inspection, while yellow placards, for “caution,” will be displayed when a restaurant has only earned a conditional pass, and is scheduled to be re-inspected within three days for possible correction. Diners who encounter a red placard will find that the establishment has been closed until its violations are corrected.

According to San Mateo County Environmental Health Services Director Heather Forshey, the colored placards will not only be easier for patrons to understand than the written reports they replace, but will also provide consistency with other communities that have adopted the system. Those include the state of Hawaii, the California counties of Alameda, Santa Clara, Solano, Contra Costa, Butte, Marin, Sonoma and Orange, along with the cities of Sacramento, Berkeley and Pasadena. San Francisco has not adopted the placard system, and instead includes numbered scores from 0 to 100 on the written reports it uses.

Consistency with other communities should make compliance easier for chain restaurant operators who have multiple locations in different counties, Forshey said. Meanwhile, the detailed written inspection reports will not completely disappear. Restaurant operators will still be required to keep those reports on the premises and make them available to interested consumers.

While the county plans to do extensive outreach to solicit opinions from restaurant operators and educate them about the new system, one Peninsula restaurateur has expressed skepticism. Diana Guerrero, who owns Burlingame’s Magda Luna restaurant, said she is adamant about food safety, and she prefers the current written reports. If her restaurant receives a demerit, Guerrero said, she wants her customers to be able to read about the violation in detail so they can decide for themselves how serious it is.

Forshey said he believes the new identification process will be welcomed by most restaurant operators because the placards will only contain information about violations directly related to food-borne illness. The old system of written reports, on the other hand, also includes descriptions of code violations that are not likely to jeopardize the public’s health, such as bare light bulbs, chipped tiles, or leaky pipes, Forshey explained.

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