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City Councillors Push For Montreal to Adopt Letter Grades for Health Inspections

But the system could end up overly simplified

NYC Restaurants Improve Food Safety Practices After Advent Of Rating System
A health inspection-based letter grade on a New York City restaurant
Mario Tama/Getty Images

The opposition at Montreal’s city hall wants the city to adopt a letter grade system for health inspections in the style of places like New York and Los Angeles.

In those cities and others, restaurants are given grades based on the results of a health inspector’s visit — such as an A, B, or C. In most situations, those grades must be posted prominently in an establishment’s window. Toronto uses a roughly similar scheme with colour codes instead of letters.

CBC reports that Ensemble Montreal (the former Equipe Denis Coderre) will put forward a motion in city council this week to implement such a system. City News reports that it would apply to all food service establishments — not just restaurants, but also cafés, bakeries, grocery stores and butcher shops, among others. The rationale is that information on health inspections is not particularly easy to access at present, requiring a somewhat cumbersome search through the city’s piles of data.

Quebec’s Restaurant Association is reportedly not jazzed on the idea (although it supports giving better access to data about health inspections), and raises some valid points. For example, if a restaurant scores a less-than-perfect grade but promptly cleans up its problems, it could be stuck with the grade for a long time if inspectors do not return to re-assess the restaurant in a timely manner.

In cities like New York, restaurateurs have raised similar issues: as one former health inspector for that city pointed out, the rather limited A-B-C categories mean that a series of minor issues like cracked tiles could prompt a B grade, meaning a restaurant loses business despite there being no real health risk. On top of that, restaurateurs have pointed out that the system can be inconsistent due to different standards of different inspectors, and that some rules (for example, that employees wear gloves instead of simply washing their hands) just don’t make sense.

There could also be a happy medium here — at present, consumers need to sort through lengthy spreadsheets to find details about health code infractions at Montreal restaurants. A more search-friendly set-up used in cities like Seattle could also allow easier access to data for the public, upgrading Montreal’s system without getting into the letter system.