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Health inspection ratings give food for thought

February 19, 2012
By ANITA HANABURGH , For The Leader Herald

Walking around New York City, one can't help but notice the large letter A, B or C posted in the windows of food establishments. Fine dining and quick serve alike must display the status of their last health inspection. As with the rest of the state, the New York Health Department conducts unannounced inspections of restaurants at least once a year. Inspectors check for compliance in food handling, food temperature, personal hygiene and vermin control. Starting in July 2010, New York City began requiring restaurants to post letter grades that correspond to scores that they receive from their sanitary inspection. An inspection score of 0-13 is an A, 14-27 points is a B, and 28 or more points is a C. Grade cards must be posted where they can easily be seen by people passing by. The mandatory rating on restaurants will inform the customer, guest or client of the findings of the latest health inspection of the restaurant they are considering.

Oh busboy! The health inspector and the health department are held in high regard, or shall we say "fear," by the hospitality industry. No matter how clean operators keep their restaurant, how well they monitor the temperature of the food, or follow HACCP procedures and sanitation practices, there is always the fear that "Big Brother" will find some violation that will garner a fine, shut down the restaurant or ruin its reputation. In New York City, the fear of exposure is added to the list.

As I have mentioned in the past, food inspections are good. They have allowed the restaurant industry to succeed. Restaurants should be grateful for this inspection procedure that protects the hospitality industry and allows it to grow safely. Every establishment in the United States is expected by law to follow the codes set up by the federal government. Every restaurant is inspected by its state or local government.

So what of this posting idea? What do I think? Should the public know the results of each health inspection. Well, I sort of like the idea, but I have some reservations.

I like the ideas because - No. 1 it rewards those establishments that do it right. I am referring to those operations that work hard at keeping their place clean and their kitchen properly sanitized. They keep hot food safely hot (more than 140 degrees) and cold food safely cold (less than 41 degrees). They train their employees in safe food handling. They care about their customer's safety and strive to keep the building safe and the food wholesome.

I also like this idea because No. 2 it creates an awareness of the importance of safe food handling practices. It makes food safety "not an option." This rating will shout "success" to the good players and shout "try harder" to the rest. The message will carry over to the customers, the employees, the vendors and the public.

I also like the idea because it gives the customer another criterion for selecting and patronizing a particular restaurant. This is great news for the traveler. I often joke one should check out the restroom before ordering. If the rest room is dirty, is the kitchen clean? In New York, I only need to look at the window.

What I don't like about New York City's rating system is that it might confuse the uneducated customer. Customers might think the letters are a sign of good quality, good taste, good service, popularity or value. The health department rating could easily be an A and the food could taste awful!

But does the customer really want to know? You bet ya! When New York City opened a website,, listing the detail of health inspection of any restaurant in the city, the site clogged, unable to sustain the 23,000 hits an hour! Fully 70 percent of New York City adults report noticing grades in restaurant windows; 88 percent of those who do consider grades when deciding where to eat. Ninety percent of all New Yorkers approve of grade posting.

Some restaurants will argue that the customer doesn't need to know everything. I agree that the details of inspections could give the customer the wrong idea. According to one New York Times article about the mentioned website, "with a few clicks of the mouse, users can call up the latest inspections of the most expensive, most coveted tables in the city - where a dinner for one is in the $100 range - and read that they were cited for 'vermin or other live animals' when, actually, they only had a fly on the table."

The customer needs to know if there is a health threat, but might not understand all the lingo of the inspections. As a customer, I want to be "respectfully informed' of any problems. Spare me the details.

Restaurant Watch: Keep an eye out for posted health rating when traveling and in New York and other big cities.



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