NEW YORK—When you go to a restaurant, a letter on the front window reflects the grade received from the Health Department after inspection. The grade can be an A, B or C.
The system was inaugurated just over 18 months ago to promote food safety, and restaurateurs are now complaining about unfair treatment.
If a restaurant doesn’t get an ‘A’ on the first inspection, the Health Department doesn’t issue a grade. Instead, it reinspects the restaurant about a month later and gives a grade based on the second inspection.
Some restauranteurs who get a grade other than an ‘A,’ end up with an ‘A,’ if the administrative judge rules in their favor.
The Health Department, though, essentially looks at the restaurant’s original grade instead of the grade the judge awards.
“[When] the restaurateur goes and makes his case in front of an administrative law judge, the health department in general is not in the room—our inspectors are out inspecting other restaurants,” said Health Department Commissioner Thomas Farley on Wednesday. “They make their decision and we stand by that decision. On the other hand, if our inspection came up with scores that gave that restaurant a C, and we still have enough concerns, we feel it’s appropriate to come back in a shorter period of time.”
Inspectors wait approximately a year before reinspecting a restaurant that earns an A, according to Health Department documents. Those restaurateurs who receive a B or C can expect another visit in six months and four months, respectively.
Speaker of the City Council Christine Quinn, who was questioning Farley Wednesday as part of a joint four-committee oversight hearing, said that the independent tribunal process should be respected.
Quinn put herself in a restaurateur’s shoes. “The public thinks I’m an A, and that restaurant has worked really hard to be an A, and everyone who goes into the restaurant thinks they’re an A, but you actually only believe they’re a C, so I guess I’m confused,” she said. “Either they’re an A and they’ve earned it, and we as government affirm the due process … or we don’t, which people might object to, but at least there’s a greater transparency in that process.”
In the end, Quinn said she would revisit the issue in the future and encouraged the Health Department to treat grades given by the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings Health Tribunal the same as grades given by the department.
Restaurateurs and City See Differently
Quinn announced the findings of an online survey seeking feedback about the health inspections before the hearing.
The survey found that even many owners who received an A are disenfranchised with the inspection process.
Almost 7 out of 10 respondents said that the letter grading system has significantly increased operating costs.
The survey was anonymous—anyone could fill it out—although 300 of the almost 1,300 respondents voluntarily identified themselves.
However, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Health Commissioner Farley announced on Tuesday that revenue at restaurants is up more than 9 percent—$800 million—since grading began on Aug. 1, 2010, and salmonella cases fell 14 percent over the same time period, because of more employees attending food safety classes.
They cited a January survey by Baruch College at the City University of New York showing 88 percent of respondents consider letter grades when dining out and 76 percent feel more confident in a restaurant’s food safety when an A grade is posted.