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NY’s Restaurant Letter Grading System: Keeping The City Safe, Or Unfair and Arbitrary?

City health inspections have restaurateurs up in arms over alleged enforcement inconsistencies and excessive fines.

New York City’s restaurant industry health standards are among the toughest in the country. They have been the subject of much praise and criticism since the Bloomberg administration introduced a letter grade system into eateries in 2010. The New York Health Department conducts impromptu inspections of restaurants at least once a year where an inspector assigns a letter grade based on compliance with the city’s health and sanitary code.

Each violation of a regulation generates a number of points. After the inspection, the points are tallied and the restaurant receives a score—the lower score, the better the grade. The restaurant must then display the framed blue letter grade in a visible area such as a door window with a bright, A, B or C.

While the scheme has undoubtedly reduced the number of food poisoning cases and forced restaurants to up their game which has improved the overall standard of hygiene, restaurateurs have long argued that the system is fine-driven and that they have been unfairly targeted for violations unrelated to health. They say that contesting the grade is an onerous, costly process.

Last year, more than 1,000 restaurants were fined for hiding their inspection grades. Fifty-five percent of the cheaters had received the lowest grade of C and been fined up to $1,000 each. In response, restaurants claimed that hiding the bad grade was a “calculated business approach” and that it was far better to pay the fine and avoid showing the letter than risk losing business, reported NY Daily News.

“I’d rather take the fine than place the C up there. It would have ruined my business. I know a lot of other restaurants do that because it’s not worth it,” said Thomas Mak, manager of Juniper, in Brooklyn.

A number of restaurants that spoke with AlterNet revealed that in order to keep up with the strong competition in New York, maintaining the A grade "golden standard" was paramount.

“It's severe rivalry out there and it’s very tough. Should you lose an A grade, it puts you behind and sometimes out of the race. You lose the clientele that is looking for that specific grade,” a midtown B-grade restaurant anonymously disclosed to AlterNet.

Another C-grade restaurant owner who chose to remain unidentified, said, “The health department in New York is just so strict. It levies very harsh conditions on food establishment donors. The system works to a certain degree. But it’s not fine-tuned and certainly isn’t always fair. It depends entirely on how lenient or strict an individual inspector is. You can get penalized just for the sake of being penalized.”

B-Cup Café in the East Village, an A-grade restaurant, admitted that while the system can be tough, it works as an important tool overall to instruct consumers where to eat and obliges restaurants to maintain good health standards.

“It isn’t that difficult to maintain high sanitary conditions in accordance with the Health Department’s guidelines as long as you are vigilant about food preparation and food protection regulations. Food has to be maintained at a certain temperature and precautionary measures must be taken with regard to preparing food, cleanliness and workspace and the turn over of disposables when attending to food. We sympathize with those who have lost their grade because it’s difficult to boost once it has been lost,” the general manager told AlterNet.

So which area in New York has the worst letter grade rating? According to a Gothamist report, only 51 percent of restaurants in Chinatown earned an A grade rating compared with 80 percent of restaurants elsewhere in the city. The reason for the grade disparity lies in language barriers, confusion over inspection reports, unwillingness to appeal poor inspections and a general misunderstanding among inspectors about how foreign cuisines in that neighborhood are to be served. Last year, restaurants in that area paid $600,000 in fines despite 40 percent of households living below the poverty line.