Pols disagree about restaurant inspection system

According to a City Council survey of the restaurant inspection process, the letter system is not making the grade for restaurant owners.

The letter grading program — which assigns As through Cs to the restaurants, bars, nightclubs, retail bakeries and fixed-site food stands that are inspected, based on the number of violations that are observed — has come under fire, with critics citing the steep increase in fines, and contending there is a lack of fairness and consistency in the way they are doled out.

In response, in January, the City Council launched a survey that sought to determine whether how widespread the concerns were among owners of the city’s eateries.

The results indicate that even restaurants that receive an “A” – which, according to the survey and Department of Health (DOH) statistics, 67 percent do — are fed up with the system. Approximately 67 percent of restaurant owners rate the restaurant inspection process as poor, while 68 percent said that the DOH’s system has raised the cost of owning a food service business significantly, a fact that cannot be taken lightly in hard economic times.

A local restaurant owner described the system as having a “tremendous weight hanging over your head” and commented, “Like anything else, it should be pass or fail. If they want to give letter grades, they should give across the board, to attorneys, politicians etc. and see how long that would last. To me, it is like a good thing that lost its way and become bad. It has gotten caught up in excessive bureaucracy and generating revenue. Some business owners just can’t do it anymore and give up. It has a ripple effect. We all depend on each other and have families [to take care of].”

However restaurants owner feel about the letter grades, the system speaks for itself in the decrease in foodborne illness and a reported increase in restaurant revenue, says Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“Confidence in clean kitchens is proving to be good for business, just as clean air has been,” said Bloomberg, contending, “New Yorkers overwhelmingly support the grading system and based on today’s news it’s not hard to see why. New York City is known for its great restaurants and now it will be known for food safety too.”

In a statement released before the results of the City Council survey, the mayor reported that salmonella cases are down 14 percent, a record low in the past 20 years. Restaurant revenues have increased by 9.3 percent or $800 million, according to City Hall, and the response from the dining-out public has been positive with 91 percent of New Yorkers approving of the grading system.

A spokesperson for the DOH agreed, stating, “We welcome restaurants’ suggestions for improving the inspection and grading program, and in fact restaurant owners played an important role in helping us devise the system. But the Council’s survey was actually an online complaint box, not a representative sample of opinion.

“An independent Baruch College survey of New Yorkers found 88 percent consider grades when dining out. With 72 percent of the city’s restaurants getting As, more and more restaurants are getting cleaner and cleaner, and the public’s health is better for it,” continued the DOH.

Nonetheless, councilmembers are in pursuit of the issue. At an oversight hearing, Councilmember David Greenfield questioned Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley but said he received no satisfactory answers for the increase in fines and as to why violations are issued on non-food related items.

Greenfield noted, “Like most New Yorkers, I like the grading system. However, I believe the city has been using the grading system as an excuse to fine hard-working restaurant owners and is simply trying to generate revenue.

“We’re talking about a grading system that has run amok and left many restaurant owners frustrated. These small business owners are the backbone of our city and deserve a fair health inspection process that prioritizes public safety over fines and revenue,” remarked Greenfield after questioning the amount of authority given to inspectors. “I support the letter grade system, but it needs to be implemented in a much fairer way that protects the rights and interests of both restaurant owners and the general public.”

Echoing Greenfield’s concerns, Councilmember Vincent Gentile had a suggestion for improvement, remarking, “The public has a right to know how well their local restaurant fared in its most recent Health Department inspection but when there is no standard in practice, it betrays the trust of the consumer and the business owner. Enforcement cannot vary depending on the whim of the inspector. The letter grading system should be focused on educating small businesses on proper practices and right now it seems as if it’s simply focused on fining them.”

Looking forward, the City Council will continue to push the restaurant inspections issue. According to Conor Greene, communication director for Greenfield, councilmembers are hoping that there will be talks between the DOH, the mayor’s office and the City Council about improving the system. If not, legislation may be introduced to address some of the problems councilmembers have with the letter grades, although Greene made it clear that the letter grades would be staying.

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