Opinion: The dirty truth behind New York’s restaurant grading system

Chefs with Issues is a platform for chefs and farmers we love, fired up for causes about which they're passionate. Josh Grinker is the executive chef at Stone Park restaurant in Brooklyn, New York. He has previously written about five things chefs don't want you to know.

The New York City Department of Health has outdone itself by giving a "C" health inspection grade to Per Se, one of the finest – and most expensive – restaurants in the world, because of violations of the department's arbitrary and punitive letter-grading program.

The grading system and presence of grade cards in the window, required since July 2010, “provides diners with easily interpretable information" and "gives restaurants the incentive to maintain the highest food safety practices," according to Thomas Farley, the former Commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

While clarity and food safety are certainly laudable goals, consumers should realize that these "A," "B" and "C" letters are poor indicators of a restaurant’s cleanliness and the quality of its operation.

Inspections in New York City are among the most rigorous in the country, and the Health Department inspectors take the mandate of compliance seriously. Keeping the consumer safe is unarguably good public policy in a city with more than 24,000 restaurants, but the size and scope of the health code makes the grading system inherently flawed.

The problems stem from too many points in the health code and too many interpretations by inspectors of those points. With more than 1,000 points at an inspector's disposal (some of which have nothing to do with actual food), the violations game is completely open to the whims of the given inspector on the given day.

For instance, the employee bathroom may not have a lid on the trash, or a choking sign might not be properly displayed. A combination of these and similar violations could earn a restaurant a "B" (let's not forget, it only takes a deduction of 14 points out of that possible 1,000 to get you that grade).

Plus, proactive sanitation efforts of a restaurant are completely overlooked by Health Department inspectors. Does it matter that a restaurant exactingly educates its employees in food safety practices? Or that it hires only trained culinary and service professionals? Does it matter that it sources antibiotic- and hormone-free meats and/or organic produce? The short answer: Nope.

Different inspectors with different levels of experience can have vastly different focuses during their inspections. That is why a restaurant like Per Se can receive a “C,” while nearby Gray's Papaya receives an "A".

This is not meant to be elitist about the issue, only to point out that culinary professionals who have devoted their lives to sourcing and preparing high-quality food probably aren't going to serve you something worse than a hot dog that’s been slow-roasting on a roller for who knows how long.

The system forces restaurants to focus on relatively picayune and whimsical infractions rather than focusing on the real issues that do impact public health.

Since the Health Department began its letter-grade system, revenues generated from fines have climbed from $31.2 million in 2008 to $45.6 million in 2011.

If one of the city’s stated objectives behind the grades is to provide an incentive for restaurants to clean it up, then the strategy has failed, as reflected in the sheer number of violations issued since the program’s inception. However, if this is simply a new way to raise more revenue at the expense of one of the city’s premier industries, then the city is doing very well indeed.

A public survey by Baruch College Survey Research, that was commissioned by the Health Department, found that 88% of New Yorkers consider grades when they are choosing a restaurant and that 65% consider the grades all or most of the time. The stakes are high and some will be forced out of business. Is this penny wise and pound foolish?

New Yorkers overwhelmingly believe that the letter grades are a good thing for consumers, so grades are unlikely to disappear. However, an overhaul of this system is in order. The stated objectives of the letter grading system are to empower the consumer to make informed choices while creating an incentive for food professionals to be more sanitary. Unfortunately, the current system achieves neither goal. The consumer is more misinformed than ever and restaurants are unfairly stigmatized and burdened with crippling fines.

Our public officials must recognize that grading, while not wrong per se, is sorely in need of reform.

The opinions expressed are solely those of Josh Grinker.

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