Councilor critical of NYC restaurant grade system; ‘borderline harassment’

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn on Friday voiced serious concerns about New York City’s restaurant inspection and grading system, calling for a series of oversight hearings for a process that she criticized as borderline harassment.

Michael Howard Saul of The Wall Street Journal explains that beginning in July 2010, in a high-profile move that drew the ire of the food industry but won kudos from diners, the Bloomberg administration began requiring restaurants to post cards with letter grades—A, B or C—reflecting the eatery’s performance on sanitary inspections conducted by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Ms. Quinn said she will authorize a series of oversight hearings on a variety of topics related to the inspection system, including whether the grading system is working and whether it has been implemented fairly. The council will also examine whether food trucks and street carts should be required to post grades, mirroring what brick-and-mortar restaurants must do now.

In a statement, Susan Craig, a spokeswoman for the Health Department, noted that surveys show 90% of New Yorkers approve of the grading and inspection program.

"We are delighted by its success. … "The program was not designed to be punitive. The program’s goal remains to provide New Yorkers with critical data when making their dining choices while encouraging restaurants to operate in the cleanest, safest way possible. Our hope is to see only A’s in restaurant windows."

Robert Bookman, an attorney representing hundreds of city restaurants, said, "Folks feel the Health Department is at war with the restaurant industry in the city of New York and that they see it as a cash cow. Bottom line, the grade system is built on a faulty point-system foundation that has only served to triple fines collected, while adding nothing to public food safety."

Mr. Bookman said the restaurant industry opposes the letter-grade system entirely. But if the city continues to keep using letter grades, he said, changes should be made.

Under the current system, if a restaurant does not receive an A, a second, unannounced inspection is conducted about a month later. But that inspection is completely new, and Mr. Bookman argued that it should instead be a re-inspection where the Health Department looks only to see if the problems identified on the first visit were fixed.

That lawyer needs better arguments. There’s lots of research out there about impact and effectiveness of restaurant disclosure systems. Horror stories of filthy restaurants in NYC are publicly available every week.

Soup shop owner collapses while preparing for reinspection

Less than a week ago I blogged about a Sacramento, CA soup shop that was up for sale after a recent health inspection unveiled a cockroach infestation. It appears closure plans have changed, and the owner has decided to remain open; or was in the process of it when he collapsed while preparing for a reinspection, reports The Sacramento Bee.

Daniel Pont, 70, has become well known for his one-man downtown restaurant, La Bonne Soupe, on Eighth Street. The tiny eatery with its gourmet soup and sandwiches topped the Sacramento Zagat Survey earlier this year but was closed last week after county health inspectors found both live and dead cockroaches.

The move shocked lunch goers who stand in long lines as they wait for Pont to prepare their lunches then handle customer transactions. Pont was working through the weekend to ready his restaurant for a fresh inspection this morning when he collapsed and was taken to Kaiser Permanente Medical Center on Morse Avenue.

Alicia Enriquez, the head of the county’s restaurant inspection program, said her inspectors arrived at La Bonne Soupe this morning and found a sign saying Pont had been taken to the hospital. She said the inspection would be rescheduled.