New York restaurants turn to consultants for inspection help

Trying to navigate the ever-changing demands of local health codes, restaurants in New York City are increasingly seeking out consultants to improve hygiene standards before a city inspector shows up.

It’s not a new concept; the big chain restaurant and grocery stores have been using outside consultants or their own people to ensure their food offerings produced and sold in a safe and hygienic manner. Government inspection sets a minimal standard that the best places strive to exceed – and no one wants to be written up in the local paper or have to display a lousy inspection result because of mistakes that could have been prevented.

The New York Times reports this morning there is an almost entirely unregulated cottage industry that has evolved in New York to run interference with the health department, even pleading the restaurants’ cases at the administrative tribunal where violations can be reduced or dismissed.

Note the conspiratorial angle.

Though the number of consultants in New York appears to be rising, a precise figure is difficult to come by. The health department began requiring that consultants register their names and contact information only last year; as of March 16, the department listed 104. They typically represent about one-third of the restaurants appearing before the tribunal, and display varying degrees of competence in doing so.

Thomas Merrill, the department’s general counsel, said,

“There’s people we have a tremendous amount of respect for. Some of them I don’t know if we’d all hire if we had a restaurant.”

Just like with third-party food safety auditors.

The inspectors issue punitive points for infractions like food kept at the wrong temperature, cutting boards with potentially bacteria-harboring grooves or a lack of proof that the croissants were made without trans fats.

The number of points, and the severity of the penalties, vary with the offense; according to the department’s guide, a “woman in gray slacks carrying poodle on service line” is much less serious than a “woman in gray slacks carrying poodle on service line, man with mustache with a parrot on shoulder at the salad bar, a child with a rabbit at the dining table and a woman with a cat on a leash at coffee bar.”

Who writes this stuff?