City Council to Hold Hearing on Controversial Restaurant Grading System

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Bloomberg. Photo: Mario Tama/2012 Getty Images

City Council will hold a hearing on Wednesday about the Department of Health's letter grading system established eighteen months ago, under the Bloomberg administration. Applauded by some and assailed by others for being arbitrary and slightly ambiguous, concerned members of City Council are expected to discuss what effect the ABC grading system is having on the city's 24,000 restaurants, which are marked outside with large colored letters corresponding to a health inspector's assessment of the building's condition. Discerning customers can look at the Department of Health's online records for a restaurant's grade or refer to this interactive map, complete with rat, rodent and insect icons that will surely whet a person's appetite.

A day ahead of the hearing, Mayor Bloomberg held a press conference lauding the system's positive effect on health, citing the reduction of salmonella infections in city restaurants. The Associated Press reports:

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas A. Farley and other health officials announced initial data Tuesday showing salmonella infections decreased by 13.5 percent over the first full year the city has used letter grades. The Health Department said 1,296 cases of salmonella were reported in 2010 and preliminary data show 1,121 cases in 2011.

Further emphasizing that sanitary conditions are improving, the officials said more than 72 percent of the city’s 24,000 restaurants earned “A’’ grades compared to 65 percent a year ago. They also highlighted the most recent tax data available showing restaurant sales were up 9.3 percent from June 2010 to February 2011.

Whether the boost in sales can be attributed to the grading system is debatable. But the greater concern for some restaurant owners is the fairness of the system itself, the accuracy of the inspections, and whether or not more prestigious restaurants are getting an unfair opportunity to manipulate their grades into the A range.

For health officials, the Council’s hearing came at an inopportune moment. The New York Post reported over the weekend that Per Se, consistently rated among the city’s best restaurants, had avoided a “B” grade with a telephone call to a city official, in which the restaurant successfully argued that the inspection report had contained errors.

City Hall officials quickly pointed out that several dozen restaurants, of varying degrees of prestige, had taken the same route to contest alleged violations and avoid a protracted adjudication process. Mr. Bloomberg, at his news conference on Tuesday, referred to any suggestion of undue influence as “an outrage.”

Others have accused the city of simply using the new system as a source of revenue. NY1 notes that in the last fiscal year, the city collected $42.4 million in fines, about four times more than it collected in 2003.

For now, the letters remain. Brian McCabe wrote for the New York Times last January about the shortcomings of a system that uses only three marks and wide variation, which might group in the A category a shockingly spotless establishment and one "where hot food items were not being held above the required temperature of 140 degrees, toxic chemicals were improperly labeled or stored in a way that contamination of the food might occur, and the restroom had no toilet paper or trash."

Bloomberg himself isn't deterred by a B rating, though. According to the Times, the mayor has continued patronizing a coffee shop near his Upper East Side pad despite its recent drop from an A to a B grade.

You've got to give it to him — he really knows how to deliver a resounding vote of confidence.