City Council prepares to examine food inspection grades

With the city’s system for checking the cleanliness ofestablishments selling food not getting an A rating from localbusinesses, the City Council has launched a survey to determine theissues, prior to holding a hearing to discuss the food safetyinspection process resulting in the letter grades that are placedin every restaurant’s window.

The letter grading program – which assigns As through Cs to therestaurants, bars, nightclubs, retail bakeries and fixed-site foodstands that are inspected, based on the number of violations thatare observed — began in July 2010 as an initiative of theDepartment of Health (DOH), allegedly with the consumer inmind.

The program mandates that establishments share their score withpatrons. Establishment owners who disagree with their letter gradescan contest them; this results in a Grade Pending sign being postedin the store window. Restaurants which do not earn a minimum Cgrade are closed by DOH, according to information on the agency’swebsite.

A system of inspection was already in place prior to July, butDOH contends that the addition of the letter grades madeunderstanding the restaurants’ rankings simpler and more visible –without requiring too much homework from hungry diners decidingwhere to eat.

However, the inspections have elicited criticism from somerestaurant owners and managers, most of whom were unwilling to goon record, saying they were afraid that the Health Department wouldshow up at their establishments and find violations because ofcomments made.

One self-proclaimed local Bay Ridge restaurateur of 25 years,whose eatery got an A rating, contended, [The] system is veryerratic and unfair. I believe the Board of Health is needed in NewYork City; however, the inconsistency [with the regulations], in abad economy, will be the demise of restaurants.

A manager at a Third Avenue take-out place blamed the pooreconomy for the increasing inconsistency and frequency ofinspection visits that he has observed, commenting, The city ispoor so the inspections serve as a way of taking money from smallbusiness. They [the inspectors] come often. It was once a year andnow five or six times a year. They find some problem and make youpay.

A fine accompanies every violation that is found, and theamounts have been multiplying, say several commenters to the paper,causing concern that the real purpose of the system is to createrevenue for the city.

Arlene Rutuelo, owner of Nordic Delicacies, said, For me, Ilike the grading system as a consumer. I have an issue with theHealth Department itself. [The rules] are burdensome and [wesimply] cannot comply with some of them or we would lose business.I applaud the City Council for taking the issue up.

Councilmember Vincent Gentile has high hopes for the survey andits results, remarking, This survey will hopefully get the realstory.

When this reporter asked Gentile how he felt about ownersfearing their honesty would land them in hot water with inspectors,he had this to say, That’s a shame that intimidation, retaliationand retribution is even a thought [when it comes to thisprocess].

The system is intended to benefit consumers, said DOH. In astatement made to the newspaper, a spokesperson for DOH remarked,The dining public’s response to the letter grading program isoverwhelmingly positive. A poll conducted by Baruch College thissummer[]showed 90 percent of New Yorkers approve of the letter gradingsystem. The program is not punitive; its goal is to ensure thesafest dining experience possible for New Yorkers and visitorsalike.

The safety of diners is a top priority for most owners as well.No owner wants to make customers sick or poison them, assuredRutuelo. Despite this common goal, restaurateurs interviewed agreedthat the program is flawed and standards vary from inspector toinspector.

A survey is now available online for establishment owners totake regarding the grading policy and program enacted by the DOH.The results of the survey will provide the basis for the CityCouncil’s hearing, which is tentatively scheduled for March orApril.

The survey is available online and will be open untilJanuary 31.

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