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The ABCs of New York City’s Restaurant Grades

Opinion

On a recent trip to our favorite Peruvian restaurant in New York City, my wife and I could not help but notice the large “C” letter grade from the Department of Health posted on the front door. The last time we were there, they had an “A.”  When I inquired with the hostess about the change, her noticeably prepared robotic response was, “Oh it was no big deal, and we took care of all the issues.” Was it really no big deal?

Upon further investigation, here are some of the specifics about New York City’s letter grading system for restaurants. The letter grades are based on point values and condition levels. 0-13 points is an A, 14-27 points a B and 28 or more points is a C. There are five different condition levels based on severity and point value, so “Level 1″ would have the fewest points whereas “Level 5″ would have the most points. A public health hazard, like an improper cold holding temperature, would be a 7 point minimum, if the situation cannot be rectified before the inspection ends, the restaurant can be closed by the Health Department. A critical violation, such as not washing produce before preparation, will be worth 5 points. A general violation, like improperly sanitized cooking utensils, holds a minimum point value of 2 points. I found it interesting that some cited violations may result in “Notice of Violation” but are not actually counted towards the inspection.

Fines for food safety citations can get juicy in the Big Apple. They range from $200 to $2,000 or higher for repeated issues. I once saw a private school in Manhattan get nailed with a $900 fine following a health inspection…for three fruit flies. Is that excessive or justifiable? You be the judge. Either way, money talks and it makes people listen, especially if the food service operator truly deserves it. If a restaurant operator settles his violations online, the fines will be assessed lower than the minimum recommendation found by the inspector and they do not have to be present at a tribunal hearing before a judge. To me, the Health Department is acting just like a restaurant in this case; let’s just turn the tables quickly to increase the volume, offer a deal, not pay for any extra labor and make that money.

Here is another “incentive” – get a letter grade of A (less than 14 points) and you will not have to pay for any fines related to food safety. However, restaurants will not be let off the hook for legal obligations to New York City, such as not having a valid permit, smoking or not posting calorie counts. If any of those things are observed, you still will have to open up the check book.

As it turns out, the Peruvian restaurant in question was cited for a cold holding violation for not having a food product be held at or under 41 degrees Fahrenheit. The exact temperature was not disclosed on the report. This would confuse some individuals because the cold holding temperature for the state of New York at this time is 45 degrees F and is due to change on January 1 2014 to 41 degrees F. I guess NYC is a little bit different when it comes to internal temperature. Ground meat products in NYC should be cooked to 158 degrees F for 15 seconds (disregarding any posted consumer advisory); unlike the FDA Food Code that suggests 155 degrees F for 15 seconds. The restaurant was also cited for fruit flies (which may have broken the bank), improper sanitizer concentration and some food products stored uncovered.

As someone who audits, consults and teaches food safety, having a program in place that improves and discloses health issues is important to me. This process is by no means flawless and has an air of profitability. But…that letter C on the front door did not stop me or the few hundred other people that day from enjoying some Lomo Saltado or Causa. The food was excellent as always, cooked to the proper temperature, and we did not suffer any symptoms of illness. Maybe the C on the front door did have a positive effect on the kitchen staff in regards to food preparation.

I think it takes a more personal negative experience for consumers to stop patronizing certain restaurants, but the awareness and opportunity the letter system offers to research a particular eatery is revealing enough for people to make their own informed decisions if they choose.

For more information visit New York City’s restaurant inspection page.

© Food Safety News
  • Michael Bulger

    $900 for three fruit flies? And there was nothing else going on? Can David elaborate on this account?

    I’ve been through the testing process to obtain a NYC food handlers’ safety certification. By my recollection, and like other food safety programs I’ve experienced, it did not treat fruit flies as a food safety hazard. Because they are considered unlikely to transmit disease, everywhere I’ve been just treats them as an indicator of poor sanitation.

    (Also, as a New Yorker, I can definitely say that the restaurant grades affect my decisions. If I am looking for a spur-of-the-moment meal, I’m unlikely to stop into a restaurant with anything but an “A” posted. There’s so many restaurant choices in such close proximity that the safety grade becomes a deciding factor between unknowns. There’s also enough restaurants with A’s that it doesn’t feel like a limiting factor.)

  • You are what you eat

    My thoughts: the grade doesn’t necessarily reflect the safety of the food in an establishment-not entirely at least, especially if a restaurant has a lot of phf on the menu, is doing lots of food prepping, etc. And then the restaurant gets dinged because their mayonaisse was one degree over the max cold holding temperature requirement, which for most jurisdictions, would be a critical violation. My experience working as a food regulator, and in the food industry, sometimes regulators lose focus of the big picture–the overall safety of the food in the establishment.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.halkovic Stephen Halkovic

    Good day David Walpuck,

    I have been cooking professionally for over ten years and I agree the calorie disclosure policies that have been adopted are ludicrous but I do think the “grading” of restaurants’ sanitary conditions is very important. Sure I think if you know and have been frequenting an establishment the “grade” will probably not effect your dining routine. Every state has their spin on the points system but they all seem to try to express the very same thing; what are your chances of walking away without food poisoning. I know hundreds of people who have eaten at places, gotten sick (usually a one day ‘bug’) “doesn’t agree with me” and never reported the digestive problems from the night before. This sort of word of mouth is fine for locals but for visitors whether business or pleasure who do not have this type of insight should be giving far warning.

  • Russell La Claire

    As a recent visitor to Manhattan, I can tell you that we (wife and I) didn’t give a second glance at any place with a “C” on the door. As visitors we didn’t know anything about the place, but we could certainly look at the sign and make a decision based upon it. Just way too many restaurants with “A” on the door to take the risk.

    Those scores, while they reflect only a snapshot of the establishment, do in fact indicate that at least while the inspector was inside, found enough evidence to pass the story along via the sign. The lack of concern amongst the staff is unimportant to me, as they likely do not have ownership in the place and may/may not feel any allegiance is owed.

    As a retired food safety teacher, I fully understand the shortcomings of any food safety system. However, I also understand due diligence.

  • David Walpuck

    Thank you for your comments. Not only fruit flies for the fines (And yes I understand that they have yet been responsible for transmitting disease… yet) but also wet wiping cloths stored out of sanitizer solution at $300 bucks a pop. I have also seen $1500 fine for a manager on duty with an expired food handler permit…by 2 days. There also seems to be an awful lot of “A’s”, there is one quick service restaurant with over 400 locations out there and every single one of them has an “A”. How can that be? Must be the Shangra-la of food safety. To me no one is perfect. What is fair is fair. If you run a negligent dirty spot with a high risk…you get what you deserve. In other cases I question if it justified. I applaud the system in the fact that people can make their own decisions and they have the opportunity to research. I also agree to the big picture. What is the overall risk? Is commercially prepared mayo a PHF? excuse me TCS. The vinegar takes care of that. That has to be the underlying factor. Last time I checked, the fruit flies, wet wiping cloths or even the expired certification was not the underlying cause of a foodborrne illness outbreak. Those people with the “24 hour flu”, never reported it, didn’t track what they ate/symptoms/onset time ect. may have gotten ill from something they ate. It’s a roll of the dice. An “A” or “C” will at least help them decide in their own minds. I love food. I love NY. Let’s hope it’s all safe.

  • Nissan

    If you are really interested, do a search for the inspector’s history of inspection. You will be surprised to find nothing. It is not posted, nor will the NYC Mental Health and Hygiene release that information. As a seven year manager of a busy restaurant on the UWS, the following happened every 6-8 months when it came to inspection time. One inspector came and issued a c grade- we turned it down, he gave us a pending grade, we paid some fines – they came back 2 weeks later for re inspection, they gave us an A grade, this was a running joke for several years. No matter how clean we were or how dirty we were, until an ungentlemanly inspector by the name of Kenneth Reid (you can google him yourselves) came through the doors. Like a blind mouse he gave us accumulating points that gave us a Failing Grade. This is his job, he refused to hear explanations … his mission before he entered our facility was to give us a failing grade. From your research of Kenneth Reid you will understand why the NYCMHH does not want to release information on the inspectors! Each inspector has a unique qualification (easy grader or hard grader-there is no absolute system)… they are then appointed to specific food eateries. ( and you put two and two together yourselves) – This man closed several restaurants bec. he was confronted by the owner to show him “house droppings (that did not exist- same thing happened to me!!!) I left the food business due to this inconsistency and the NYCMHH’s lack of appreciation for the men and women who sweat day and night to give NYers’ delicious food. – THIS IS A PLEAS TO THE READERS… IF YOU HAVE ANYWAY OF FINDING AN INSPECTOR’S INSPECTION HISTORY – PLEASE I WOULD LOVE TO SEE IT. but who are we kidding, it’s like seeing a flying pig!