3/21/14

City's Restaurant Grading Rules Revised

At a joint press conference today, City Council Member Vinnie Gentile, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett announced the release for public comment of new restaurant grading rules designed to reduce fines by 25% by better educating restaurant owners, while protecting public health.

After peaking in FY 2012, restaurant fine collections fell by 23% in FY 2013. The proposed new grading rules, including fixed penalties, would further reduce fines by 25% -- a return to pre-grading levels.

Under the proposed new rules, restaurant owners could request a pre-inspection consult with the Department of Health to get a tailored readout on best food safety practices before being graded and possibly penalized. This would help restaurants prepare for inspection by giving them the information and tools they need to compete for an "A" grade.

Council Member Vinnie Gentile, calling small businesses like restaurants the "backbone" of the city's economy, said he wants to see a "more cooperative, educational and transparent" restaurant grading system.  In order for restaurants to succeed and grow, he said, inspectors must work with owners rather than try to catch them off-guard and drop a grade on them.  Resetting the grading system by revising the rules would shift the focus from revenue generation to public health, said Gentile.

Speaker Mark-Viverito thanked the deBlasio administration for working with the Council to bring "much-needed fine relief to the City's restaurants", while upholding safety standards.

Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Lilliam Barrios-Paoli affirmed the deBlasio administration's commitment to following the City Council's lead in making the restaurant inspection process "more consultative and less onerous."

Restaurant letter grading began as a motivational device and tool to help the public decide where it's safe to dine -- and it's working. More than 90% of New Yorkers approve of letter grading.  And restaurant performance has improved -- there are now 14% fewer reported Salmonella cases in New York City than in the rest of the state.

Last October, after hearings, forums and a citywide restaurant inspection survey, the Council passed sweeping new legislation to improve oversight and performance of the restaurant inspection system. The legislation placed an ombudsman in the Office of Food Safety who responds to restaurant complaints, and expanded a food safety advisory committee that includes nutritionists, food safety experts, and restaurant industry representatives. The committee reviews the letter grading system on an ongoing basis.

Under an agreement worked out between the Council and the Health Department, restaurants whose scores drop below 14 points after an initial inspection can escape being fined for any remaining sanitary violations.  And the Health Department will no longer issue violations for structural problems missed by prior inspectors, so long as conditions haven't changed in the meantime and the restaurant fixes the problems.

The Department of Health launched the letter grading system in July, 2010, when it began requiring restaurants in all five boroughs to post letter grades.  The stated goals of the new program were to inform the public of the results of the restaurant's inspection in a simple, accessible way; to improve sanitary conditions and food safety practices in restaurants; and to reduce the number of people getting sick from eating restaurant food.

Today, 88% of New York City restaurants post "A" grades, while the number of restaurants pulling "B" and "C" grades has dropped significantly, with just 10% posting a "B", and 2% posting a "C." Every restaurant gets two chances to pull an "A" on its inspection, and 50% of restaurants that score in the "B" range on their initial inspection get an "A" on re-inspection, an increase of 38% over Year One of letter grading.

New York City restaurants now get fewer violations in important food safety areas, and violations like mice, inadequate hand washing facilities, poorly refrigerated foods, and poor worker hygiene have also declined. Between the increase in "A" grades and the drop in violations, 34% of the city's restaurants avoided paying any fines in FY 2013.

For more information on letter grading, please visit www.nyc.gov/health/restaurants

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