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.