Back to School: New York City Restaurants Receive Letter Grades for Sanitary Conditions

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Starting later this month, color-coded grades based on restaurant food-safety conditions will begin appearing in prominent locations to the entrances of New York City’s nearly 24,000 eating establishments.

The grading system, finalized in June by the city’s Health Department, is based on the number of points a restaurant receives for violations of the Health Code. Restaurants with fewer than 13 violation points will receive a blue, “A” grade.
Restaurants that earn between 14 and 27 points will be awarded a green “B” grade. Those establishments that have more than 28 points will receive the third and lowest grade, a yellow “C.”
As the new system rolls out, restaurants presented with a grade lower than an “A” will have an automatic re-inspection at least a week later. If the second inspection still results in a “B” or “C” grade, the restaurant can appeal the assessment and post a “Grade Pending” sign while awaiting a final ruling.

See the new grades

The Health Department said the grades provide diners with more information about the state of cleanliness in New York City’s restaurants.
“We think food hygiene practices can be improved in New York City,” said the city’s health commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley. He said posting grades based on food safety inspections would give restaurants an economic motivation to improve sanitary conditions or risk losing business.
“I don’t think that it’s going to have an impact that will make a huge difference,” Farley said, “but it will be just enough of an incentive for them to improve their practices.”
Robert Bookman, legislative counsel in New York City for the New York Restaurant Association--which has criticized the new grading program--disagreed.
“What you will see is many restaurants who are getting ‘Bs’ and ‘Cs’ either going out of business or laying off people because they are going to lose business,” he said.
The department expects nearly half of the city’s restaurants will receive a “B” grade as the program begins. Similar results occurred in Los Angeles County when it implemented a restaurant grading system in 1998. Four years later, over 80 percent of restaurants had an “A” grade.
Bookman said the food inspection systems are extremely different for New York City and Los Angeles and, he added, letter grading is a “gimmick.”
“It doesn’t give you any real information,” he said.  “The actual inspection report gives you real information” and the grades will only be “misleading and confusing” for diners.  He said the restaurant inspection program in New York City is about generating millions of dollars in fines each year.
The Health Department disagrees and says the goal of the program is to improve the health of New Yorkers by improving sanitary conditions in restaurants throughout the five boroughs.
“The ultimate goal of the program is reduce food-related illness in New York City,” said Farley.
The department already conducts more than 55,000 restaurant inspections each year. As the grade program launches over the next year, it expects the number of inspections could increase by nearly fifty percent. The department plans to increase the number of inspectors from 156 to 180 and has budgeted $3 million this year--$125 per restaurant--to launch the grading system on top of the current inspection budget, which has averaged nearly $3.4 million in previous years.
The Health Department said it will take nearly 14 months before nearly every restaurant in New York has a posted grade. But not every place will have a grade: school and hospital cafeterias and street vendors will be exempted from the program. The health commissioner said those locations require a different inspection process.