While many restaurants in New York City adhere to good sanitation practices, there are many establishments that need improvement.

On Tuesday the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene voted to require restaurants to post letter grades reflecting the operation’s cleanliness. The verdict, passed with a 6-to-2 vote, is a victory for consumers but restaurant owners are not pleased; there 25,648 restaurants to be graded across the city.

sanitary-inspection-grade.gifLetter grades have been used in Los Angeles County restaurants for 11 years, and the measure is recognized with the reduction of hospitalizations from foodborne illness symptoms.  L.A. was the first to put food safety letter grades in restaurant windows.

“Giving consumers more information will help make our restaurants safer and cleaner,” said the health commissioner, Dr. Thomas A. Farley, the chairman of the health board.”

There are also built in incentives to maintain high ratings. The letter grades–blue for A, green for B or yellow for C–will be placed on an 8 inch by 10 inch placard posted effective July 2010 and will replace the previous numerical ratings, which were previously only available online.

Currently, about 30 percent of the city’s restaurants would qualify for A grades, 40 percent would get a B and 26 percent would earn a C. Consumers can expect that a greater number of restaurants will receive As and Bs once the grading program goes into effect.

According to the Department of Health Website, “Restaurants will receive grades based on the number of violations documented during their sanitary inspections. Each establishment will post a placard at the point of entry, showing its current sanitary grade, and restaurants receiving an A grade will be inspected less often than those receiving lower marks.”

Consumers should not be too worried, however.  It is safe to patronize restaurants with B or C grades, which need to improve their overall food safety practices, but don’t pose imminent health risks. The Health Department immediately closes restaurants with conditions that may be hazardous to health.

The agency offers on-site training during every inspection and also provides free and low-cost classes on food protection.  Classes, which are available in multiple languages, are held during the day and evening and are also available online.

Restaurant owners are not happy with the verdict and Robert Bookman, legislative counsel for the New York City chapters of the New York State Restaurant Association, the operators’ trade group, charged that “letter grading will be more misleading than helpful,” adding that “it will be unfair and a black eye to this industry in the restaurant capital of the word.”

Image: New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene