"The presence of rodents and insects is certainly disgusting and certainly shows a restaurant is not focusing on food safety," she says. "But the things most dangerous to consumers are the things we would never see. Unless we had the tools and the training, even if we went into the kitchen we would not be able to see the things that would really harm us."
That is why the CSPI urges every city and state to adopt a restaurant grading program. As is done in Los Angeles County, restaurants would be required to post -- in their front window -- a letter grade from inspectors showing whether they got an A, B, or C. Lower grades would result in the restaurant being closed.
"The result in L.A. County has been a 20% reduction in food-borne illness," Klein says. "Right now, a poor inspection is a hidden shame for a restaurateur. With public grading, food safety comes out of the shadows and becomes a priority for the restaurant, the same way a four-star rating from the Zagat Guide would be."
And consumers pay attention. Klein says that in Los Angeles, only 3% of consumers say they'd eat at a C-grade restaurant. And restaurants that got a C saw revenues dip by 1%, while those that got an A saw their income rise by 5.7%.
Mary Adolf, president of the solutions, products, and services group of the National Restaurant Association, warns that health inspections provide only a snapshot of what's going on in a restaurant at a specific point in time.
"Ninety-nine percent of critical violations are corrected before the inspector leaves the restaurant," Adolf tells WebMD. "That is important."
Adolf says the National Restaurant Association supports a method of restaurant health-inspection reporting that is standardized across the U.S.
"Whether it is a letter grade or some other method, it needs to be standardized so it can be truly meaningful, and inspectors need to be trained against those standards," she says. "And these standards should be based on the latest FDA Food Code."