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State ignores health of Milwaukee consumers by eliminating popular food grading system

Less than one year after the City of Milwaukee implemented a successful restaurant grading system that has been popular with consumers and establishments, the State of Wisconsin program will ban the program.

The state Board of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection voted 4-2 to update a series of food rules on November 15, to bring Wisconsin’s food code in line with federal guidelines. Included in the new rules is language prohibiting restaurant grading systems.

Milwaukee Alderman Michael Murphy worked with city health department officials for four years before the program was implemented in January. He said the state’s vote was a reaction to the Wisconsin Restaurant Association’s lobbying efforts.

“At a minimum, the grading system should be given some time to move forward for a year or two, and not be kiIIed just because one special interest is more interested in money than public health,” said Alderman Murphy. “I believe our residents and millions of visitors deserve a clear way to understand the compliance of restaurants and food establishments. Food grading puts clear information in front of consumers, rather than requiring they find and interpret technically complicated reports.”

Prohibiting grading systems blocks the public from making informed decisions as consumers, and ultimately contributes to the possibility of food borne illness. Milwaukee’s food grading system was implemented on a voluntary basis this year, after consultation with FDA and key stakeholders, including numerous business operators in the city. About 40% of the city’s 3,000 restaurants are participating.

Food grading systems are used across the world to disclose food safety inspection results. Milwaukee is the only city in Wisconsin that awards grades, although several other cities across the country including New York, San Francisco, Portland, Oregon and Minneapolis have the program.

The Food Sanitation Grading System grades food service establishments on the existing Wisconsin Food Code under which inspections are currently conducted, assigning point values to each violation. Violations that most directly contribute to food borne illness result in higher deductions. Establishments are awarded an “A” grade for a score of 80 points or more on a 100 point scale. Scores below 60 points result in a “C” grade, and may prompt temporary closure of an establishment if an imminent health hazard exists.

“We feel strongly that our residents and millions of people who visit our city each year should have a clear way to understand the compliance of restaurants and other food establishments. Food grading puts clear and easy to access information in front of consumers, rather than require them to find and interpret technically complicated reports,” said Alderman Murphy.

The Milwaukee Health Department conducts between 8,000 and 10,000 establishment inspections per year. Alderman Murphy said the food grading system has been effective in Milwaukee.

“This is the first time in many years we have seen a reduction in critical food violations,” added Alderman Murphy. “Consumers like to know when they go into a restaurant what the safety standards are, and it helps drive the operators to do a better job, because they all would like to have an A.”

The state board’s recommendation will now go to the governor and state legislature for approval. The soonest the new rules would go into effect is spring 2019.

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