NYC Food Grading System Put Through the Test

ADDITIONAL CONTRIBUTORS Tanya Silverman

By Tanya Silverman

Since 2010, inspectors from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene have been issuing letter grades to rate the conditions of restaurants throughout the five boroughs.

Using a very detailed code that adds up to over 1,200 points, inspectors check for things like proper utensil storage, discolored cutting boards, food temperatures and facility design, dinging points for violations to their standards.

An “A” grade means 13 or fewer points were deducted; “B” means 14-27, and “C” is over 28. This letter is then displayed on the restaurant’s window, offering consumers the option of discriminately turning away from a place when they are deciding where to eat. Curious customers can even go online to look up the particular violations the restaurant had to determine their grade.

An “A” grade. All photos by Tanya Silverman.

Regardless of providing such information for the public, consumers may not realize what the inspections themselves, or their consequent fines, mean for the business owners.

Money has been a huge issue: over the past three years the grading system has been in place, the city has reaped in an additional $20 million annually from fines. Individual restaurant owners have called out many of these petty charges, like one dead strawberry costing them $300; violations like having cutting boards with too many grooves, dented cans or broken tiles may also merit fees.

There have also been numerous complaints of inspectors being arbitary, inconsistent, and unclear about instructions.

These issues have surfaced in city politics. Bill de Blasio, Public Advocate and Mayoral Candidate of NYC, supports the concept of the system, but criticizes its implementation.

“I think the notion of having restaurant grades is a good one, but I don’t think they’ve been reliable… we’ve seen a lot of unfairness in the way the city’s gone about grading the restaurants,” he tells BTR. “Bluntly, it’s been a burden to a lot of small businesses that are trying to do the right thing but get very contradictory signals from the city.”

Earlier this month, another mayoral candidate, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, announced a legislative package set to reform the existing New York City restaurant grading system. To reduce costliness, this package proposes to reduce fines by 15 percent, as well as to waive the violation fees for restaurants upon receiving an “A.”

Other reforms include forming an ombuds office and advisory board to improve communication between restaurant owners and inspectors, along with offering optional educational consultation services where no fines are issued. An inspection code of contact will be added, and violations for the physical layout and structure of a restaurant shall be taken away.

The Council, which had been receiving ongoing complaints about the grading system, worked with the NYC Hospitality Alliance to draft this reform package. Hospitality Alliance Legislative Counsel, Robert Bookman, says that the Alliance will continue to “work with the Council to see that they are passed into law” — a goal that Quinn says will be achieved in the fall.

Bookman then looks to later stages in the future:

“We [at the Alliance] hope to be involved with the Advisory committee next year which will look at further reforms under the new Mayor.”

Beyond the dynamics of legislation, the grading system and its reforms are very important to the staff of a food establishment. Margo Lewis, the owner of Ms. Dahlia’s Café in Brooklyn, comments that overall, the city’s grading system regulations have improved her restaurant. She believes that its inherent fines, however, only work to cripple business.

“Ultimately, no one wins when so many small businesses are closed under the burden of the exorbitant fines,” she says.

As for the proposed reforms, Lewis considers putting forth “onsite inspection education and compliance requirements as the first step with fines assessed for non compliance” as a notable improvement.

“Rewarding owners who rate an A-grade with no fines is also important,” she adds.

Robert Bookman stands by the proposal to waive fines for places that receive an “A,” claiming that it “helps all businesses,” has “no negative impact on customers,” and helps keep “small mom and pop places open.”

Dave Walpuck, a certified food safety professional and author who has written articles about the grading system, offers his insight on the violation-fee reform.

“They didn’t necessarily say what they were going to do to reduce as far as fines go,” he says of the 15 percent reduction proposal. “My position is that the fines should be higher for things that are a direct correlation to potential food-borne illness, as opposed to something that is a sanitation issue like a dirty floor.”

Walpuck, who has worked as a city health inspector in the past, notes that many violation fees can in fact be arbitrary. Nevertheless, inspections should executed correctly: health risks like “a backed-up floor drain, cross-contamination or having a sick person preparing food” should be assessed much more seriously than a situation where “a delivery was brought in and dropped food on the floor.”

In addition, he holds that “repeat violations should hold greater weight” than the first time around.

Bill de Blasio is skeptical about the political aspect of these proposed reforms.

“I think they can be a step in the right direction,” he tells BTR. “But I also said I am dubious about any of the folks who have been part of creating the current system actually being committed to reform. So I’d be more comfortable with new leadership trying to get it right.”

Speaking on behalf of the food consumers, none of us wish to become ill from what we eat; it does not hurt to be assured that the surroundings are sanitary. Nevertheless, these basic customer requirements should be enforced in a way that is fair to restaurant owners. The inspections and grades should also be meaningful.

If and when this legislative package passes into action through the NYC government, hopefully its reforms will work to improve the grading system as an effective means of educating restaurant owners on safety. Ideally, the existing system could transform into regulation that is beneficial for restaurant owners, workers and customers — without any side effects of being a power-play or money-making scheme for regulators.

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