A controversial bid to make Detroit the first city in Michigan to grade restaurants based on health inspection results has failed.
Council Member Scott Benson spent three years cooking up an ordinance that would require restaurants, bars, food trucks and a number of other food establishments to publicly post color-coded signs showing health inspection results. The City Council voted 6-3 Tuesday to reject the regulations, which make no improvements to health inspection or enforcement procedures, amid heavy opposition from business owners and industry organizations.
In addition to Benson, the “yes” votes included Council Members Mary Waters and Angela Whitfield-Calloway.
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Tuesday’s vote ends months of discussion on the proposal introduced this summer. The council first delayed a vote in September, then sent the ordinance back to a council committee to be reworked through negotiations with restaurant owners. The proposal reemerged from the council’s Public Health and Safety Committee in October with a few minor tweaks, but the changes didn’t go far enough for prominent organizations representing business groups in Detroit.
Public comments during Tuesday’s meeting were largely negative, with the number of restaurant owners opposing the ordinance far outnumbering those who voiced support for it. Critics included Detroit organizations representing more than 100 businesses and influential statewide organizations like the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association and Small Business Association of Michigan (SBAM).
“To have a thriving small business community, we must ensure that entrepreneurs are not burdened with heavy regulations that often come with unintended negative consequences,” Alexa Kramer, director of government operations for SBAM, said in a statement to BridgeDetroit. “We understand the intent of the proposed ordinance, but fear this ordinance will harm the small business community, especially small restaurants that have faced continuous obstacles, from the COVID-19 pandemic to workforce shortages to inflation, over the last few years.
Restaurant owners said the color grades add unnecessary regulation and could unfairly hurt their business. They also argued the ordinance singles out Detroit businesses while suburban competitors and state-regulated food establishments – like gas stations and grocery stores – aren’t held to the same standard.
Benson has called the proposal “a best practice” and “good policy” to protect health and safety and provide basic transparency about health department inspections.
“There is not enough information given to the public on this,” he said.
Council President Mary Sheffield said Tuesday she simply “couldn’t turn an eye” on the number of businesses that opposed the ordinance. Council Member Gabriela Santiago-Romero added that she supported the food grading system until she had conversations with restaurant owners.
“While I think this ordinance has great intentions, I believe it is not the right time,” she said. “Restaurant owners say they need support, from funding to safe serve training, to better, easier licensing and permitting processes … I want us to focus on what they need before we ask them to feel additional pressure from this ordinance.”
Benson in a Tuesday statement after the vote called the outcome “disappointing,” but vowed that the city “will continue to keep our residents safe from poor food handling practices and restaurants that serve their customers food contaminated by rodent droppings and roach infestations.
“We will work to bring transparency to this process, but today, the Detroit City Council has spoken,” Benson added.
Charity Dean, president and CEO of the Metro Detroit Black Business Alliance, said the earlier delay with the ordinance was a chance to go back to the drawing board, but that didn’t happen. Instead of partnering with Detroit businesses, Dean argued that Benson tried to rally supporters. A petition Benson shared on social media collected 138 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.
Benson said “sweeteners” like free food safety training and the addition of two health inspectors were added to the proposed ordinance.
Dean said businesses wanted the color grades removed. But that provision was critical to the ordinance, which Benson said was inspired by similar grading systems in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and Columbus, Ohio. Benson has said that color grades are the best way to help Detoriters know where it’s safe to eat.
Detroiters can use an online search tool to find a summary of health inspections dating back to 2016, but the reports can be difficult to interpret. More than 3,500 citations were handed out to Detroit restaurants so far this year, according to data published by the city. Inspectors found 267 of the city’s roughly 1,900 licensed restaurants were not in compliance with the state’s food safety standards.
Benson pointed to a handful of restaurants, including the iconic Lafayette Coney Island, that had serious health issues in recent years. But under the ordinance, the grades would have only changed after a health inspection. The grading system wasn’t designed to catch issues, it just lets residents know after they were already found.
Restaurant owners also expressed major concerns with the capacity of the health department.
Detroit’s Chief Public Health Officer Denise Fair Razo said the health department could handle any uptick in workload resulting from the ordinance if it had been approved. However, the health department only has nine of 15 positions filled. That’s one fewer inspector than a week ago, according to a health department presentation.
“I am certainly optimistic that we will fill our vacancies over the next couple of months,” Fair Razo said. “I do want to say to that even though we have not been fully staffed, we are meeting the demand.”