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Food Safety: Making the Grade

Bright lights, big city, New York City, an insanely popular tourist spot is famous for many things, including Broadway shows, some of the most recognizable names in Hollywood and delectable eateries. But, what do grades displayed on the walls of the sum 24,000 eateries actually mean?

A Cornucopia of Restaurants

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Some inspections are scored and not graded.

Whether you are a resident of “The Big Apple” or are simply visiting, it’s easy to run into an eating establishment and be greeted with some of the finest tastes from around the world. As your mouth waters from the cornucopia of food you have the potential to taste, realize that points count for a lot when it comes to food safety. Restaurants with a score between zero and 13 points earn an ‘A’ rating. Those having 14 to 27 points receive a ‘B’ rating and eateries with 28 or more points get a ‘C’ rating.

Be it, A, B or C, hopefully, these places display their sanitation grades from the New York City Health Department. At any rate, here’s what you need to know about eating in “The City That Never Sleeps.” The past few years’ has brought about huge changes, in terms of eating in New York City. Specifically, as of July 2010, the Health Department has required restaurants to publicly post letter grades that summarize the results of their sanitary inspections. All of this is required in an effort to help consumers make informed decisions about where they eat. Consumer awareness also is excellent because it fosters an incentive for restaurants to maintain high food safety standards.

Report Card Time

For their part in maintaining overall food safety, the Health Department conducts unannounced inspections of restaurants at least once per year. What do inspectors look for? They check for compliance in food handling; this means vermin control, food temperature and personal hygiene. And, each violation of a regulation is given a certain number of points. At the end of each inspection, the inspector tallies the points and this number is the restaurant’s inspection score; the lower the score, the better the grade.

Over time, the Health Department expects these improvements to lead to a reduced risk of restaurant-related, food-borne illnesses. What’s more, this grading program uses dual inspections to help restaurants improve their food-safety practices before they even are graded. Say a restaurant doesn’t earn an ‘A’ during its first inspection, the Health Department does not issue a grade, giving the establishment time to get up to code. It instead conducts an unannounced second inspection close to a month later, at which time the second inspection is graded, which we will touch on later.

Getting What you Give

What’s the core of the score? The points for a violation depend on the health risk it poses to the public. Violations fall into three main categories:

• A general violation, such as improper sanitation of cooking utensils, receives at least two points;

• A critical violation, serving raw food such as a salad without properly washing it first, carries a minimum of five points;

• A public health hazard, such as failing to keep food at the correct temperature, brings a minimum of seven points. Note that if the violation can’t be amended before the inspection ends, the Health Department may close the restaurant until it’s fixed.

Inspectors also assign additional points to reflect the gravity of a violation. For example, a violation’s condition level can range from one (least extensive) to five (most extensive). The presence of one contaminated food item is a condition level one violation, generating a whopping seven points. Four or more contaminated food items is a condition level four violation and will result in 10 points. The job of an inspector is quite involved and goes beyond that of just being about an A, B or C rating. Two types of inspections result in a letter grade: re-inspections that result in an A, B or C and initial inspections for which the restaurant earns an ‘A’.

They say, ‘You never get a second chance to make a first impression, ‘ but this is not the case when it comes to restaurant grading. An eatery has two opportunities to earn an ‘A’ during every inspection cycle. If it doesn’t earn an ‘A’ on the first inspection, it’s scored but ungraded. An inspector then returns to the restaurant unannounced, generally within a month, to inspect it again and the re-inspection is graded. If the grade is a B or C, the restaurant will receive a grade card and a grade pending card. At this time, it can post either card, until everything is reviewed by the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings Health Tribunal (OATH). Until a restaurant has a graded inspection, it is listed as Not Yet Graded on the Health Department Web site.

Taking a Step Back

As if inspections weren’t already complicated enough; some inspections are scored and not graded, they are:

• Inspections before July 27, 2010;

• Initial inspections that result in a score of 14 points or higher;

• Some inspections in response to complaints;

• Monitoring inspections at a restaurant that has performed poorly on its re-inspection. The Health Department may continue to inspect the restaurant about once a month until it scores below 28 or the Department closes it for serious and ongoing/persistent violations;

• Inspections at new restaurants not yet open to the public;

• An inspection at a restaurant seeking to reopen after the Health Department shuttered its doors.

Here’s a little more about eating in ‘The City That Never Sleeps.’

The past few years’ has brought about big changes, in terms of food in New York City.

No Harm, No Fowl

What happens as restaurant ratings improve? When a restaurant improves between initial inspections, the Department inspects it far less frequently, than if it had not. For example, C-range scores that move to the B-range typically have one fewer inspection each year. Nonetheless, C-range scores that move to the A-range are inspected two less times per year, which clearly demonstrates the department’s confidence in their operation.

It doesn’t just stop there, the Health Department continues to meet regularly with restaurateurs and convenes a quarterly Food Safety Technical Advisory Committee, which further instructs the Department on its food protection rules.

Back On the Chopping Block

You may think these results have no bearing on the decisions New Yorkers make when eating out. However, results indicate the exact opposite. Residents do in fact support the grading program and greatly consider grade cards, when opting to eat away from home.

New Yorkers take great pride in their state and want to keep it running as it should. Furthermore, In July 2011, Baruch College Survey Research conducted a survey of New Yorkers, as part of the City’s comprehensive evaluation of restaurant grading. In the survey, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a representative group of New Yorkers were asked probing questions about their familiarity with restaurant letter grades. A total of 70 percent of New York City adults reported noticing the newly posted grades in restaurant windows. Also, 88 percent consider grades when deciding where to eat, with 65 percent considering them all or most of the time. Ninety percent of all New Yorkers approve of grade posting, as well.

Unnecessary Fines and Penalties

Displaying grades is not an option for restaurants; therefore, it must be done. Restaurants that choose not to comply with the newly implemented rules and regulations will see a lot less money in their pockets. What does this mean? Those failing to post their required grade cards and those that do not post these cards in the required location, face fines of up to $1,000 for the first offense and as much as $2,000 for subsequent offenses. Know that restaurateurs can dispute these violations at the Office of Administrative Trial and Hearings Health Tribunal.

There are many facets to the scores a restaurant can receive. These grades should not be a mystery to consumers, who want to patronize their favorite eateries. Acting in the best interest of the customer, they can learn which grade card should be posted near a restaurant’s entrance by checking nyc.gov and searching “restaurant letter grading.” If the grade card is missing or is not in the required position, consumers are urged to call 311, to be sure their voice is heard by filing a complaint.

Eating, Drinking and Being Merry

Though this is a sampling of what goes on in the “Empire State,” regarding food safety, other states can have their own health laws which have been enacted; so be sure to check them out in your state. Food safety is a looming issue and when food goes unprotected, it can lead to some very serious consequences for the consumer, period. These repercussions can include being hospitalized due to food poising. From sushi, to steak and everything in-between, do your part and look before you eat.

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Web Links:

http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/html/services/restaurant-inspection.shtml;

http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/downloads/pdf/rii/restaurant-grading-6-month-report.pdf;

http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/downloads/pdf/rii/restaurant-grading-18-month-report.pdf;

http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/downloads/pdf/rii/blue-book.pdf;

http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/downloads/pdf/rii/how-we-score-grade.pdf

-Kimberly Williams

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