Restaurant (food safety) rating/grading system -- good for NYC, or no?
What do you think of the current food inspection
system in NYC? should it change or remain the same? our current system (theoretically) requires at least twice yearly inspection of restaurants, and violations/fines are noted and kept in records accessable on the internet.
1) are nyc's standards stringent enough? does nyc pose a unique food safety challenge versus other cities?
2) how should food inspection information be conveyed to the public, via a rating system like LA with grades on the windows, or should the info be kept more or less hidden away on a website for those who want to do due diligence?
take a look at the series of articles linked below, for some brief backgroudn info.
Let me start by saying that I have been a restaurant manager in NYC for most of the past 25 years, and the restaurant I was general manager of had a flawless inspection for 14 of the 18 years I ran it. According to NYC standards we should have had 36 inspections in those 18 years, but if my memory is correct we had fewer than ten. Is this a problem? Perhaps, but I don't think so.
I don't mean to be self congratulatory, but clearly my restaurant was well run, at least as far as cleanliness and food handling were concerned. We had all the proper equipment and we used it. We had the proper training, permits, and signage. Should we have been inspected more often? Perhaps, but given the limited number of inspectors in NYC I would much prefer them to concentrate on problem resataurants and food shops than those that are clean and well run. By all means, stop in and see if we're maintaining standards, but spend more time inspecting those that are not.
As far as what the inspectors look for, NYC food storage and handling standards are more stringent than those in force in the rest of NY State, as well as stiffer than those recommended by the federal government. One example: when cooling a hot food like a soup or sauce for storage, NY State and the federal government require the temperature to be reduced below 40 degreees farenheit within four hours. NYC says do it in two hours. I do not think NYC standards need to be any tougher, but I think there has to be more enforcement. Unfortunately my experience leads me to think that restaurant inspections in NYC are about a revenue stream as much as they are about safety. Every single time my place was inspected the inspector "found" at least one or two very minor infractions. I was always able to reverse the infractions in a hearing, but that meant taking a few hours to go down to the Board of Health and argue my case. Most restaurant operators, no matter how clean their stores or how proper their procedures, don't bother to fight, pay the fine ($1oo per violation at minimum), and consider it a cost of business.
Should letter grades be given? No. Absolutely not. All the letter grade does is indicate in extemely broad terms what conditions were when the inspection was done, and that might have been two years earlier. While an "A" indicates a well-run place it is no guarantee, and a "B" or "C" might have improved, or gotten worse. And you have no idea why the "B" or "C" was given. Was it for bugs in the basement or for a missing or expired permit?
Present law says you can always request that a restaurant show you their most recent inspection report. Restaurants are required to have it on hand and to show it on request. It is a two or three part form, most of which takes some experience to comprehend, but one page clearly explains the violations, if any, in plain english. In my 25 years in the business I never once had anyone other than an inspector ask to see my last inspection report.
Instead of letter grades, or even looking at an old inspection report, a much better way to get a feel for the restaurant is with your eyes. Is the outside clean and in good shape? Does the staff look clean, healthy, and well groomed? Are the bathrooms clean and in good repair? If the bathrooms are near the kitchen or adjactent to a storage area look in: is the area clean and organized? Are there a lot of flies buzzing around the restaurant (one or two flies are sometimes a good sign -- flies are almost impossible to fully eliminate without the use of poisons illegal to use in foodservice establishments)? The answers to these questions will usually give you a pretty good idea of how a place is run and whether they care. And the information will beimmediate, much more current than any official inspection.