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Eat, Drink, And Be Cleanly

In Los Angeles, lunch isn't something you eat, it's something you do. And no one knows that better than L.A. Magazine Food Critic Jonathan Gold, who keeps his identity a secret when he visits restaurants, CBS News Correspondent John Roberts reports.

"America has a lot of food obsessions," he says. "But in a lot of ways, Los Angeles may be the most food obsessed city of them all."

What Angelinos are obsessing about isn't so much cuisine as cleanliness. Letter grades in the windows of every restaurant tell patrons how they scored on cleanliness inspections. If county health inspectors give anything less than a "C" for sanitation, they can shut the place down.

"If it's a 'C,' we don't go in," says patron Bill Long. "It makes me more aware, and I'm a little more choosy now."

The grades grew out of an undercover investigation by Los Angeles CBS News' affiliate KCBS. Hidden cameras found an unappetizing, unsanitary smorgasbord at local eateries. Things like a pinch of ash in the fish, chicken stewing for hours in foul water, and cockroaches in too many kitchens. The stomach-turning report spurred the county to take action.

"We think that in general, the sanitation and the health conditions in restaurants are a lot better than they were a year and a half ago," says John Schunoff, chief of operations for the L.A. Department of Health.

Even the mighty got burned. The Pantry owned by L.A.'s mayor failed inspection and was shut down briefly. After a half-million-dollar makeover, it only earned a 'B.'

"I'm fighting for an 'A,'" Pantry manager Dwayne Burrell says. "I don't know what I have to do to get an 'A.' I really don't."

Famed chef Wolfgang Puck gets top marks for his restaurants. He says health-conscious Angelinos now expect absolute food safety, but no grade can guarantee that. "I think it's important to tell the people," Puck says. "Tell them now. If you don't have an 'A,' it is not acceptable."

"If you have an 'A,' it gives you an extra reassurance," Puck says. "That doesn't mean anything at the end of the day, because they still could have gotten something in that day and you know, it wouldn't be fresh and you might still get sick."

Maybe, but now, the county's safe food crusade is hitting supermarket shelves too. Another undercover report showed workers repackaging and re-dating meat and fish. Grocers claim repackaged food can be good food, but disgusted lawmakers want to make it a crime.

"The issue of doing anything for a buck is what lies behind this," one local legislator says. "It's been indirectly encouraged by a lack of regulation and a lack of enforcement."

Other places think Los Angeles may have the recipe for safer food. Even cleanliness-obsessed Japan has inquired about the program. But in a city where gastronomy is a big part of image, they caution a good grade is only one ingredent of good food.

"As useful as the grading system is, there is a downside," Gold says. "We're relying on the letter in a window to tell us whether a restaurant is good to eat in or not to eat in. And food, after all, is about pleasure. It is about community. It is about coming together over a table. And it is not about some sterile letter grade."

Though a high letter grade may not be everything, it still is pretty reassuring. The L.A. county health department says 75 percent of the restaurants it inspects get an 'A.'