Why would a restaurant advertise how dirty its kitchens are? Because it has to. Andrew Gumbel reports on an American initiative that could soon be on a menu near you

One of the attractions of the throwaway newspapers that accumulate in the coffee bars and dive restaurants of my Los Angeles neighbourhood is the oddly compelling monthly list of forced restaurant closures. Somehow, I find it comforting to read about the various McDonald's, Pizza Huts and Taco Bells that have been ordered to lock their doors after failing a health inspection. The coldly bureaucratic, meticulously detailed violations are invariably intriguing: "harborage of vermin", "gross contamination of utensils", or that chilling one-word description that begs as many questions as it answers, "sewage".

One of the attractions of the throwaway newspapers that accumulate in the coffee bars and dive restaurants of my Los Angeles neighbourhood is the oddly compelling monthly list of forced restaurant closures. Somehow, I find it comforting to read about the various McDonald's, Pizza Huts and Taco Bells that have been ordered to lock their doors after failing a health inspection. The coldly bureaucratic, meticulously detailed violations are invariably intriguing: "harborage of vermin", "gross contamination of utensils", or that chilling one-word description that begs as many questions as it answers, "sewage".

Picture me in, say, Tom's Diner - a cross between a breakfast counter and a Mexican tacqueria at the end of my street - idly conjuring up images of cockroaches in someone else's kitchen, even as I wonder quite what the hair-netted ladies behind the counter have thrown into my oddly chewy beef burrito. Not that I have any real cause for worry. Tom's may harbour a whiff of grease in the air, but I can allay any twinges of doubt by casting a glance at the royal-blue letter "A" stuck on its large plate-glass window and awarded by the Los Angeles county health department.

The "A" means that the last time the place was inspected, it scored more than 90 per cent for hygiene. "B" isn't bad, either, denoting a score of 80-90 per cent. "C" is a little dodgier (70-80 per cent), and anything below means automatic closure and a place in the roll call of infamy reprinted in The Argonaut or the Santa Monica Daily Press. The ratings system has been going for a little over six years now, and it has proved an unqualified hit. So much so that environmental health officers in Britain - where there are currently more than a million cases of food poisoning a year - are discussing importing the concept.

In LA, it's not only the consumers that appreciate the heads-up. The restaurant owners themselves, after some initial resistance, have come to regard health ratings as a badge of honour. It used to be that As, Bs and Cs were distributed more or less evenly around town. But now the As have come to predominate. A recent study of Los Angeles restaurants conducted by Stanford University's business school showed that the proportion of As has gone up from around 25 per cent in 1998, the first year the system was in operation, to somewhere about 90 per cent.

The benefits of the system are tangible. The number of hospitalisations for food-related illnesses fell 13 per cent in Los Angeles county in 2003, compared with a 3.2 per cent increase in the rest of California. Health inspectors are ordering far fewer closures than they used to - just 0.4 per cent of restaurants inspected, compared with almost six per cent before the ratings system began. Restaurants with a clean bill of health are also making more money, with sales at A-grade establishments rising 5.7 per cent a year.

This is quite a change from the restaurant practices of even a few years ago. As George Orwell revealed in Down and Out In Paris and London, fancy prices are no guarantee that the chef won't spit in the soup, or serve up chicken that fell on the floor, or allow underlings to cough and blow cigarette smoke on the dessert trolley. That is precisely the sort of thing that went on all over Los Angeles until the late 1990s.

Terrance Powell, the county's chief restaurant inspector, recalls a case where he found what he thought was a large pot of lumpy soy sauce in a Japanese restaurant kitchen. "When I looked closer it wasn't lumps," he recounted recently. "It was hundreds and hundreds of cockroaches." To make matters worse, the owner refused to acknowledge the problem. He proposed simply straining the cockroaches out.

The turning point came in late 1997, when the Los Angeles affiliate of CBS television produced an unnerving exposé entitled Behind the Kitchen Door. The CBS journalists applied for jobs at restaurants most frequently cited in health department reports - which commanded little or no public attention back then - and took hidden cameras into the kitchens. Viewers were shown cooks who touched food, licked their fingers and then touched the food again. They saw kitchen workers helping themselves to morsels from their customers' dinner plates before sending them out, and washing their hands in sinks where frozen meat had been left to thaw. At Canter's, a well-known old deli in the Fairfax district, the CBS team found raw turkeys left unrefridgerated for nine hours, rubbish piled 6ft high in the hallway and cockroaches crawling around boxes of food. The on-site bakery was littered with hundreds of rat droppings.

Then another bombshell dropped. The Original Pantry, a famous 24-hour diner owned by the then mayor of Los Angeles, was closed for the first time in its 73-year history on 36 separate violations. Weeks later the ratings system was in place. Canter's and the other restaurants exposed by CBS mended their ways, and many earned A-ratings for their pains.

There are some who remain suspicious of the ratings, and suspect the preponderance of As means the system is rigged. (The Stanford study speculated that some cases hovering just below A-grade might occasionally get bumped up in light of overall progress.) Others wonder if the credit earned by restaurants for their impeccable hygiene doesn't sometimes act as a distraction from the quality of the food - so that overpriced, unimaginative dinners are munched without complaint because the pot lids happen to be shined to perfection.

Nobody, though, is advocating a return to the old days. It is amazing what a devastating psychological effect a C-rating can have, even at a regular haunt. A few months ago, my wife and I were on our way to a favourite Vietnamese café when we saw the fateful letter looming in the window and turned away in search of somewhere else.

It is amazing, too, how even a temporary drop in the ratings can be a harbinger of deeper problems. A once-favourite Oaxacan restaurant suddenly dipped from an A to a C and, sure enough, the taste of the chicken mole turned lousy, too. At another cheap local diner, the shock of a temporary recent closure prompted the owners to repaint the outside walls a lurid lime green. Next time I went, the lunch menu tasted as if it were much the same colour.

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