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On Restaurant Grades: Giving an F to Josh Ozersky

In coming up with topics for my opinion-pieces here at Food Safety News, I have been trying not to be so critical–which is to say, trying not to build a topic around me criticizing someone for their opinions or proposals.  For as I observed in my last piece, The Perils of Punditry, there is not much good to be accomplished by “off-the-cuff opinion-making and online sophistry.”[1] A perfect case in point–and the thing that got me right back to the business of criticizing–is the recent opinion-piece, Giving an F to New York’s Restaurant Grading System, by Josh Ozersky published online at Time.com.[2] In the piece, Ozersky decries the posting of letter grades, based on a restaurant’s most recent health inspection, as being akin to Hester Prynne “being…shamed for all the world to see.”

To put it mildly, Ozersky’s piece is so silly it almost seems like intentional satire, along the lines of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.[3] To put it less mildly, it is brain-numbingly asinine.  Take, for example, the assertion that “New York and L.A. have become downright draconian in their urge to oversee the inner workings of small businesses like restaurants.” But what has really changed here about how restaurants are overseen? Why, nothing at all. The regulations remain essentially the same, based as they are on the FDA Model Food Code, and the Food Establishment Inspection Report, which have existed in their current format since 1993.[4] Moreover, residents of New York City have for quite some time been able to look online for copies of a restaurant’s recent inspection reports.[5] So, really, the only thing that is changing is that the results of the inspection are translated into a letter-grade, and restaurants must now prominently post the grade in the front window.

f-grade-featured.jpgBut with this one change, Ozersky has been prompted to announce that he “hate[s] to see regulation enforced in such an arbitrary and imperious way.” Even worse, according to Ozersky, the “new letter-grading system will only further encourage the big chain restaurants that are serving crappy food zapped by microwaves.” Yes, I can see it now.  Mario Batali will be forced to close Babbo, only to have it replaced by an Applebee’s restaurant.  To say that Ozersky is being just a little hysterical in his hyperbole is quite the understatement.

Hyperbole is not all that Ozersky relies upon for his rant. He also trots out a few false analogies, like the one where he equates restaurant inspectors (or, in his words, “health department functionaries”) with “the stone-faced meter matron” who is utterly indifferent to his “explanation of why I was about to move my car.” Of course, Ozersky’s analogy might be somewhat less inapt (and less inept) if the failure to move one’s car had the potential cause an outbreak of foodborne illness.  But since it does not, perhaps the “indifference to cooking” of which he accuses restaurant inspectors might not be such a bad thing–that is, when it saves lives.  Ozersky is, however, much too busy complaining about the imagined absence of “tender mozzarella and piquant salami” to give much weight to the presence of Salmonella or E. coli O157:H7.

Perhaps sensing that his rant against restaurant letter-grades has devolved into a plea to abolish all food safety regulations, and to leave the poor chefs alone, Ozersky feigns recognition of the necessity of some regulation as he ends his essay, writing:

“Still, as imperious and ill-advised as many of the city’s health-department rules may be, no one would argue that there shouldn’t be any oversight of what we’re fed in restaurants. Chefs left to themselves won’t take the time to keep pork from rubbing up against chicken, despite the manifest hazards of [S]almonella. But to grade restaurants using a system that rewards nuked food over slow cooking? That seems merely mean. Is it some thwarted, fugitive Tea Party impulse that I feel kicking inside me? Or simple well-earned skepticism, as I wonder, Who grades the graders? I need the health department to watch out for me. I know that. But I don’t need them to publicly humiliate small businesses in order to do so.”

So, apparently Ozersky prefers that the humiliation of a near-failed inspection be kept private, and the results of such an inspection safeguarded from the prying eyes of potential customers.  I mean, otherwise, customers might just reward restaurants who pass their inspections with flying colors, and avoid dining in restaurants that do not. And, otherwise, a customer who sees a restaurant with a C-grade might pull out her smart-phone and check for herself what the inspection reports says, and then make her dining decision according. And, otherwise, market forces would reward restaurants who invest in safety and training while punishing those that do not. And, otherwise, the safety and cleanliness of restaurants would increase as a result of great transparency and accountability in the market place.

But never mind about all of that. Ozersky is worried about the health department hassling the a few chefs who want to cook sous vide without being bothered with the “need to draw up a hazard plan worthy of Three Mile Island.” I mean, come on, what’s a little botulism among friends? Because that is the significant food safety risk that the health department is attempting to protect the public from by requiring the chefs who use this low-temperature cooking process to think carefully about before using the public as unwitting guinea pigs.[6] Thus, far from being indifferent to cooking, as Ozersky accuses, health inspectors are simply putting the priority straight. No matter how delicious and innovative the food, if it is contaminated with a deadly pathogen, I guarantee that you would rather not eat it.

Bon Appétit!

1.  http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2010/06/the-perils-of-punditry-everyone-has-an-opinion/

2.  http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2005191,00.html

3.  The complete title of Swift’s famous (or infamous) essay is A Modest Proposal For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick. See Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Modest_Proposal Written in 1729,  Swift mocks the authority of British officials by suggesting that the Irish could solve their economic problems by selling their children as food for the rich, writing “A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.”

4.  http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodSafety/RetailFoodProtection/FoodCode/default.htm With the input of the Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFD), the Food Code is updated regularly. Since being issued in 1993, 49 of 50 states have adopted a version of the Code, covering 95.5% of US population. http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodSafety/RetailFoodProtection/FederalStateCooperativePrograms/ucm108156.htm   The current version of the model Food Establishment Inspection Report can be found here: http://www.foodprotect.org/me
dia/guide/CFPFoodEstabInspFormCommFormAppxA.pdf
And the NYC version is here: www.nyc.gov/

5.  The website is maintained by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

6.  Here is the risk posed by sous vide cooking, when done improperly, as described by one talented New York chef who somehow managed to survive the bother of getting his restaurant’s hazard plan approved by the health department. According to Chef Daniel Angerer, Dangerous bacteria such as botulism can thrive and grow in an oxygen free environment as in sous-vide cooked foods – hence the HACCP plan. “If food does not get handled properly a contamination of botulism can occur which leads to violent illness and death could even result.” See Chef Angerer’s complete blog-post about sous vide here: http://chefdanielangerer.typepad.com/chef_daniel_angerers_blog/2010/05/my-love-affair-with-the-department-of-health-.html

© Food Safety News
  • Denis,
    I agree that inspectors have an important but tough job and there is a wide range of skills involved. Many stress enforcement and enter kitchens as if its a raid, shutting down an environment of learning. I believe the coaching oriented inspectors are more effective in changing food safety behaviors in an enduring way.
    The best execution we have seen in the restaurant grading systems is that of Maricopa County. If New York’s system can achieve what they have, the grading system will be a success much like you envision where “market forces would reward restaurants who invest in safety and training while punishing those that do not.”
    Jim

  • John Cornyn

    What we seem to miss is that most grading systems are reactive. At some point in time, government will start to insist that potential restaurant operators and food processors have to prove competence before they are granted a license. When you consider what hair dressers and tattoo artists have to go through to be licensed, why not have as stringent, if not more so, for people who are serving the masses? It is ridiculous how easy it is to open a restaurant or food processing facility.

  • Jerry

    A prominently-posted food grade would indeed affect the savvy consumer’s choice…..and for good reason. If/when restaurants are completely compliant, this would then be “over-kill”….but until then, I’d like to have the information readily available…..Besides, a restaurant with an “A” grade would have a competitive advantage, correct?

  • Denis,
    I agree that inspectors have an important but tough job and there is a wide range of skills involved. Many stress enforcement and enter kitchens as if its a raid, shutting down an environment of learning. I believe the coaching oriented inspectors are more effective in changing food safety behaviors in an enduring way.
    The best execution we have seen in the restaurant grading systems is that of Maricopa County. If New York’s system can achieve what they have, the grading system will be a success much like you envision where “market forces would reward restaurants who invest in safety and training while punishing those that do not.”
    Jim

  • nick

    Yeah, I feel very comfortable that these “health inspectors” are so well trained…yes sir ee, those three months is practically a doctorate.
    More than I can count, I’ve had two different “inspectors” tell me different scientific “facts” about food safety. Like the MR prime rib I had to throw away because it was under cooked or the eggs that “MUST” be refrigerated or they are INSTANT DEATH.
    Screw you. Health inspection is a big, fat, joke. These people are NO DIFFERENT than any other STATE employee. Get a real job.