Do fines even matter? NYC councilor drafting bill to change restaurant inspection fine structure

A colleague at the vet college shared a story with me about restaurant grades a couple of months ago. He and his son went into a local sushi place and it was dead – they had no problem getting a seat during the usually busy lunch rush. He asked the manager what was up and she said that business had been down since they had been given a low score during a routine inspection.

That made him pause a bit, they ordered lunch and ate, but hadn’t been back. I guess some folks do make choices based on posted restaurant grades.

In New York, inspections and grade postings have been a hot topic for the past few months – and as Doug wrote a few weeks ago, the requisite whining from both sides is a bit tiring.

In attempt to take the clean doesn’t mean safe statement to a more pragmatic level, NYC councilor Christine Quinn is (I think) trying to make the health department to refocus their fine structure away from clean infractions and focus on safety (but it’s billed by the New York Daily News as "shrinking penalties for citations that don’t involve food").

In my ideal regulatory environment fines would be based on risk to public health – and so would disclosure grades.

“They are definitely working on the bill,” said Robert Bookman, counsel to the New York City Hospitality Alliance, an influential new restaurant group. “There’s a universal feeling among the City Council that something must be done to rein in the Health Department.”

The likely legislative changes include shrinking penalties for citations that don’t involve food — problems like broken tiles and dented food cans, sources said. The legislation is also expected to waive fines for eateries that score an A after appealing a lower grade.

If, as expected, the bill clears the Council, it would need a thumbs up from Mayor Bloomberg, who hasn’t shown much of an appetite for overhauling the controversial system.

City Hall expects to bank a record $48 million in restaurant fines this fiscal year — a 50% increase from the $32 million collected in 2009, budget records show.

While the fine rhetoric is captivating, the biggest penalty to a restaurant might be a poor risk-based inspection grade.

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.