Today marks the launch of New York City's new restaurant grading program. The much-debated system assigns letter grades of A, B, or C depending on the number of health code violations recorded in a restaurant's most recent inspection. Restaurants are then required to post a placard advertising the letter grade in their front window, so potential customers can take a look before entering.
There has always been very comprehensive information available online about restaurant inspections and violations. But the idea behind the new system is that few patrons actively seek out this information, and thus are in greater danger of contracting food-borne illness from an unclean restaurant. The most egregious violators are, of course, promptly shut down by health inspectors until they clean up their act. But the poor-performing restaurants that are not closed remain a possible threat to public health.
So what do the grades mean?
A letter grade of 'A' indicates that a restaurant received 13 or fewer health code violations in their last inspection. Any recorded violations are likely to be technicalities or non-critical infractions, such as "Non-food contact surface improperly constructed;" "Lighting inadequate;" or "Canned food product observed severely dented."
A letter grade of 'B' indicates 14 to 27 recorded violations at the restaurant. The majority of NYC restaurants currently fall into this category. At this level some of the violations are noted as 'Critical' by the Department of Health—common Critical violations include "Cold food held above 41°F (smoked fish above 38°F) except during necessary preparation;" and "Sanitized equipment or utensil...improperly used or stored."
A letter grade of 'C' indicates more than 28 health code violations. This is when things start to get pretty gross—and possibly dangerous. For instance, sanitation violations at this level sound like "Evidence of mice or live mice present in facility's food and/or non-food areas;" "Hand washing facility not provided in or near food preparation area and toilet room;" or "Food item spoiled, adulterated, contaminated or cross-contaminated." At the moment, about 200 of the 473 inspected Manhattan restaurants on the DOH website fit into the 'C' category.
If a restaurant receives a B or C grade, they will be re-inspected after a month's grace period. After the second inspection they must post the grade or appeal the results, in which case they can then place a "Grade Pending" placard in the window to indicate an incomplete inspection process.
Pros and Cons
The DOH claims that the most positive benefit of the letter-grade system is that consumers will be able to have a better understanding of the comparative sanitation of the restaurant they are about to enter. While some eaters may shrug off a C grade, others may be glad to consciously avoid the potential pitfalls of dining in a low-scoring restaurant. But there is substantial push-back against the new system as well.
One chef who has been outspoken on this question is Marc Murphy, of Landmarc restaurant in Tribeca and the Time Warner Center. He takes issue with the gray area of restaurants that receive a low C grade, but remain open. "Either you're clean enough to operate and you're legal, or you're closed," he said in a recent interview. "Close the restaurants that are dirty." He also notes that a high number of violation points can have little to do with food safety, if the violations are non-critical. "I would hate to see a restaurant close because they had a leaky faucet and a light bulb that wasn't lit quite right."
The DOH started issuing letter grades this morning, and it looks to be a slow and measured process. It remains to be seen how (if at all) the new system will affect restaurant patronage, future inspection results, and closure rates. Keep an eye out for your local haunts' letters—but remember that there's always a more complex report below the seemingly cut-and-dry grade.