News & Politics

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.

A city council survey further revealed that 66 percent of restaurants rated the letter-grade system as poor based on the erratic nature of inspections, driving many to desperate measures like bribing inspectors and forging grades. A consultant firm was recently accused of selling fake grades to at least nine New Yorkrestaurants

Restaurant owners became so fed up with the system that last year 40 Bronx businesses filed a $150 million lawsuit against the city claiming letter grading fines were unconstitutional because the venture was nothing more than an inconsistent revenue-raising scheme designed to extract money from small businesses. The grievance led to a major overhaul of the system in an attempt to mitigate the concerns of business owners. As a result, the city announced it would reduce the costs of penalties and set specific fine amounts for each individual, whereas previously fines could be imposed at varying quantities at the pure discretion of an officer, Silive reported.

“The restaurant letter grading was never supposed to be a way to generate additional fine revenue, especially since the Health Department discovered long ago that higher fines don’t by themselves result in better sanitary conditions,” said city council speaker Christine Quinn. “We have to balance the needs of restaurant owners and operators with our obligation to keep restaurants clean and safe for the public.”

Even Bloomberg conceded that the system was controversial. The former mayor of New York recently added fuel to the fire when he told an audience that while he understood why restaurant owners were “bitching” about letter grades and having to clean up their kitchens, he would suggest, “don’t eat in a restaurant unless they have an A.”

 “We put in grades in restaurants; it was very controversial. It’s still controversial. The restaurants, they get fined, don’t like it, they rush to elected officials [saying], ‘This is not fair.’ But it is also true [that] when we put in the grading of the restaurants, the cases of salmonella at our hospitals went down,” Bloomberg said.

His comments outraged restaurateurs and were labeled as irresponsible and a “slap in the face to an industry,” after it was revealed that if patrons were to follow Bloomberg’s advice and eat in A-grade establishments only, it would narrow dining options in the city by about 4,500 restaurants. 

The controversy doesn’t end there. The New York Post recently claimed that around 65 percent of violations were entirely unrelated to food quality. According to “statistics it obtained,” 12 percent of the fines issued last year were for structural issues and equipment and maintenance and another 12 percent were for things like failure to vermin-proof kitchen facilities with 30 percent listed defined as “all others.”

Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, told thePost that the most common fines unrelated to food quality included bathrooms running out of toilet paper, cracked tiles, dirty aprons and scratched cutting boards.

"Many of the [violations] are non-food related — dimly lit light bulbs, not having the proper documentation to show that a product has no trans fats in it,” Rigie said. “Not all fines are created equal. We’d like to see fines reduced on small-business owners for non-imminent health violations. The culture of fining small businesses needs to change. The focus should be on food safety and education versus a punitive basis.” 

The Post also claimed that the 97 percent of "sanitary" restaurant violations that come before the independent health tribunal are upheld and almost impossible to overturn, especially compared with other city enterprises such as taxi and limousine cases which are upheld only 67 percent of the time. However, according to Grub Street, the Post was not entirely forthcoming about the extent of violations related to food safety.

“This feat of statistical misdirection is meant to blow your mind. If city restaurants were fined a total of $51.4 million last year, after all, doesn't this mean that $35 million of that had nothing to do with salmonella and noroviruses? No, it turns out, because the Post is only relating the total number of fines and doesn't get into dollar amounts. An explanation that fines 'vary widely' is buried at the bottom of the tenth paragraph,” the article reported.

The Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, an independent administrative court that provides New Yorkers with the opportunity to contest charges filed against them, confirmed to AlterNet that the figures have indeed been inflated.

“As you can see from Health Tribunal data posted online, 58 percent of charges filed at the OATH Health Tribunal were sustained last year and 42 percent of the Health Department’s charges were dismissed,” OATH spokesperson Marisa Senigo told AlterNet.  

“The numbers cited by the Post was not an accurate representation of our data since they failed to capture the per charge dismissal rate. Nearly all Notices of Violations that come to the tribunal have multiple, numerous charges on them. Rather, the Post reported on the outcome of the entire Notice of Violations, which isn’t an accurate account of the dismissal rate. Most decisions (81 percent) have mixed hearing results, meaning the judge dismissed some charges and sustained others. Our data is always reflective of all types of cases that come to the Health Tribunal, not just restaurant cases…which may have been misrepresented in the Post article,” Senigo said.

Still, business owners remain jaded and are hoping they will have a supporter in City Hall this year, appealing to new mayor-elect Bill de Blasio.

“We look forward to working with the de Blasio administration to reduce fines on restaurant owners. We’re working to overhaul the inspection system so it’s more public health-focused instead of fine-driven,” Rigie said.

As Public Advocate, de Blasio had previously expressed that while he considered the letter grades helpful to consumers, he would seek to limit the impact of fines. It is unclear where he presently stands on the issue and what action, if any, he plans on taking in modifying the system. The mayor's office failed to respond to requests by AlterNet to verify his position. 

Still, one thing remains certain. The letter grading system has been a successful tool in protecting the public from foodborne illness and has highlighted the importance of maintaining high sanitary conditions, as Department of Health spokesperson, Levi Fishman, explained to AlterNet.

“Restaurants are cleaner since letter grading went into effect. Today, an overwhelming majority of restaurants post an A grade, both the number of violations issued and fines collected have decreased over the last two years and reported cases of salmonella are down 14 percent since letter grading began,” he said.

However, no system is perfect. There is an obvious need for greater transparency of the rules and regulations to ensure inspector standards are uniform so that restaurants understand exactly what is required of them in order to avoid unnecessary fines in the interest of fairness.

Check out your local restaurant violations at NY Times' Restaurant Rating Guide.

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Jodie Gummow is a senior fellow and staff writer at AlterNet.