New York restaurant letter grade rules are official; the best restaurants will market results rather than whine

The New York City Health Department published its new restaurant letter-grading rules Tuesday so next month, for the first time, signs bearing A, B or C ratings will be issued to the city’s more than 24,000 restaurants to publicly announce their cleanliness.

The 8-by-10-inch placards are to be dated, and operators will be compelled to post them in windows or restaurant vestibules, making customers aware of inspectors’ ratings that were previously available only at the health department or on its Web site.

The department offered details of a fourth grading sign that diners will soon be seeing — the black-and-white “grade pending” placard. After an initial inspection, if a restaurant is given a B or C, it can publicly post those grades — or the owner can seek an administrative hearing to request an upgrade. The restaurant can then post a “grade pending” sign as an explanation to diners for the absence of a letter grade in the restaurant.

The new rules are available online at

Dr. Thomas Farley, the health commissioner, said during a press conference Tuesday, June 15, 2010

“We hope that when people are making choices where to eat, they will eat at an A restaurant.” The restaurant industry “has often made dire predictions,” including when the city banned smoking in bars and restaurants and required calorie counts be posted at many eating places. “And none of those predictions came true.”

Like in Toronto eight years ago, where a red, yellow, green restaurant inspection disclosure system was implemented. Same thing is being said in London, Ontario, as the city contemplates a similar red, yellow, green disclosure system.

Todd Lewis, a Smoke’s Poutinerie diner, said seeing a yellow sign would make him think twice about eating at a restaurant, but he would want to know what the exact infraction is before making a final decision.

But some patrons think the signs are unnecessary and can at times be misleading.

Meagan Zettler, a regular at Yo-Yo’s Frozen Yogurt, said diners concerned about a restaurant’s infractions should check online to see if the eatery has any current health violations.

She thinks the signs can unnecessarily drive business away because they don’t list the exact health infractions.

For now, Londoners worried about a restaurant’s violations can visit to check it out.

Valid concerns, and the worst way to doom a disclosure system is to oversell the system, something the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest does routinely, like when they said yesterday Los Angeles has been doing restaurant grading for over 10 years with great results—including a documented 20 percent decrease in hospitalizations due to foodborne illness.

Correlating restaurant inspection disclosure with incidence of foodborne illness is fraught with difficulties. Disclosure provides some information – and it is just a snapshot in time – but helps enhance a culture of restaurant diners that value microbiologically safe food.

Filion, K. and Powell, D.A. 2009. The use of restaurant inspection disclosure systems as a means of communicating food safety information. Journal of Foodservice 20: 287-297.

The World Health Organization estimates that up to 30% of individuals in developed countries become ill from food or water each year. Up to 70% of these illnesses are estimated to be linked to food prepared at foodservice establishments. Consumer confidence in the safety of food prepared in restaurants is fragile, varying significantly from year to year, with many consumers attributing foodborne illness to foodservice. One of the key drivers of restaurant choice is consumer perception of the hygiene of a restaurant. Restaurant hygiene information is something consumers desire, and when available, may use to make dining decisions.

A final plea by New York restaurateurs before letter grades arrive

Over 10 years after the Dirty Dining series of articles appeared in the Toronto Star, which led to the creation of the red-yellow-green restaurant inspection disclosure system, and the arguments haven’t changed: people want the information, good restaurants promote their good food safety scores, and the various lobbies think the system is silly.

After watching for 10 years, I figure no politician is going to restrict this kind of information to the public; so figure out the best way to make such information available.

As New York City prepares to adopt a letter-grading disclosure system, similar to that in Los Angeles, the N.Y. Times reports that at a public hearing Tuesday, the health-department announced it had received 280 written public-hearing comments — 273 for, 6 against and one ambiguous. But none of the 80 who attended the hearing came to the plan’s defense.

Vincent J. Mazzone, owner of the Chicken Masters restaurant in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay, told the hearing,

“The premise of the letter-grading is sophomoric, and punitive and demeaning to restaurateurs, as if they are schoolchildren who must be graded.”

Marc Murphy, chef and owner of Landmarc Restaurant in TriBeCa, said that average diners “will see a C grade and no one will come in — they might as well close shop. Everyone in our business is not against health inspections, but we don’t want bad letter grades from trivial infractions.”

In March the board voted 6 to 2, with one abstention, to rate cleanliness in the city’s more than 24,000 restaurants using publicly posted letter grades, compelling operators to post inspectors’ ratings that were previously available only at the department or online.

Under the program the city will supply the placards to restaurants rated with a blue A for the highest grade (from 0 to 13 points under the old system), a green B for a less sanitary but still passing rating (13 to 27 points), and a yellow C for a failing grade (28 points or more). The signs are to be dated, and prominently posted in windows or restaurant vestibules.

Thomas Slattery of the United Restaurant and Tavern Owners of New York told the commissioners

“In L.A., it’s basically a joke — everyone gets an A.”

Guess he’s never heard of C is for Chinese in L.A., but people show up anyway.

Kitchen confidential no more: sanitation grades will be good for New York diners and restaurateurs

So says Tim Zagat, co-founder and chief executive of Zagat Survey in this morning’s N.Y. Times, adding,

This system can only benefit the restaurant industry, and the health board has been eminently reasonable in what it proposes to do. What’s more, the public overwhelmingly favors the idea. In a recent survey by my company, 83 percent of respondents said that they would like to have grades posted. …

In essence, the New York plan merely makes routine health inspection results more transparent. The city has inspected restaurants for decades, but the results have been available only online or at the health department; now they will be displayed in the restaurant itself. Establishments that fail to get an A on the first inspection will be given a second examination within 30 days, giving them time to correct any failings found in the first go-around.

Quite simply, the inspection process is intended to keep us safe when dining out. … The restaurant association would do well to take its place at the table — and support the proposed grading system.