A number of policy proposals are up for election in 2019’s Dallas mayor race. One of them could transform how Dallasites dine out and how restaurateurs do business: public signage for health inspection scores.
When the Observer surveyed mayoral candidates earlier this spring, four — Albert Black, Scott Griggs, Lynn McBee and Miguel Solis — expressed support for public signs displaying inspection scores in restaurants’ doors or windows, a system employed in New York City, Los Angeles, Toronto and the United Kingdom. A fifth candidate, Regina Montoya, is satisfied with the current system for disclosure, and three — Mike Ablon, Eric Johnson and Jason Villalba — did not respond.
Currently, Dallas food inspection scores, in a number format from 1 to 100, are posted online in a city database and presented, in a far more user-friendly format, in a rival database built by the Morning News. Customers can also view a restaurant’s report by going to the establishment in person and demanding to see a paper copy.
Some Dallas officials oppose public signage, often called “Scores on the Doors,” because they believe customers should be viewing full reports, not just simplistic numerical or letter grades. But this May’s election offers the possibility that voters may decide for themselves, especially given the strong support for public signage from much of the mayoral candidate field.
“I understand the discomfort it might cause restaurant owners, but the information is relevant to customers being able to make informed choices,” Black told the Observer.
“Posting a health inspection score is an act of transparency, for both the city and the establishment,” Griggs said.
“I support posting health inspection scores that deliver transparency to Dallas diners and customers and allow them to make informed choices,” McBee agreed.
“Yes, scores should be posted outside so consumers can know immediately the level of cleanliness at a restaurant,” Solis said. “However, to truly make this a helpful service to the public, Dallas city health codes and scoring systems need to be better explained to Dallasites.”
The lone voice of dissent in the survey was Montoya.
“I am sensitive to avoiding undue red tape that could hinder the restaurant industry, but I do think customers should have access to inspection scores," she says. "I am positive there is a workable solution that makes sense for our Dallas food service establishments.”
Asked to clarify her position after the original survey was published, Montoya confirmed her support of Dallas’ current inspection reporting measures.
“After talking to many friends who frequent restaurants, as well as to a couple of restaurant owners, it seems that most people are satisfied with the way things are,” Montoya said.
Although Black and Montoya expressed empathy for the red tape facing restaurant owners, the city government’s current opposition to a public signage system is on different grounds.
“We think it’s more advantageous to the customer to review the actual report, as an establishment can receive a grade of A and still have major food safety issues, such as inadequate refrigeration, inadequate heat holding equipment or no hot water,” Mandy Shreve, assistant manager at Dallas Code Compliance, told the Observer in 2018. “These are major violations, but the score would still reflect in the 90s or as being an A. Simply providing a score or a grade does not tell the customer everything they need to know to make a good choice about where they dine out.”
At the time, Shreve explained that the city planned a public awareness campaign encouraging more diners to visit the online database or directly ask restaurant managers to see full copies of an establishment’s latest report. That more detailed look at a business’ performance, while requiring more effort on the consumer’s behalf, provides a more accurate portrait of a kitchen’s hygiene.
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It’s unclear whether diners would actually follow that suggestion. Three prominent Dallas restaurateurs — each of whom has owned multiple local establishments — told the Observer last year that they had never had a single customer, at any of their businesses, ask to see a copy of their health inspection reports.
Some research suggests that the benefits of public “Scores on the Doors” signage goes beyond public awareness.
A 2015 article in the American Journal of Public Health found that when New York City began requiring window signs displaying an establishment’s safety grade, establishments were more likely to receive A grades, more likely to improve upon failing grades and less likely to receive continually low scores. The city also saw a 14 percent drop in salmonella cases.
At the time of that 2015 study, New York City’s public signage law had an approval rating of 91 percent.