A visit from the Health Department often triggers a wave of panic in any restaurant—regardless of how clean it might be. It’s not uncommon for restaurants to use codes to signal the arrival of an inspector, for owners and managers to come rushing in, or for the entire contents of a fridge to be thrown in the trash.
I worked at a place where we were told to say “86 pizza” if the Health Department came for an inspection. There was no pizza on the menu. Once, while training at a different restaurant, I was told to leave the premises should a health inspector come by. Management wasn’t willing to take chances on a newbie making mistakes and costing them points, they’d rather have me flee the scene.
When CulEpi checked the NYC Health Department’s look-up tool for accessing details on letter grades and a restaurant’s specific violations, we kept getting error codes, and whatever browser we used, the tool wasn’t functioning so we couldn’t access any restaurant’s inspection information, information that’s supposed to be public.
Like most of us, I care about the quality and safety of the food I eat. Where I live in New York City, a letter grading system is in place to help diners make informed decisions about restaurants but, when you see a “B” grade in a window you shouldn’t immediately assume they have mice or that eating there will give you a bad case of food poisoning. As someone who works in hospitality, I know this isn’t always the case.
In NYC, any health code violation is worth a certain number of points, and for a restaurant to get an “A,” they can receive no more than 13 points. Each violation usually ranges from 2-7 points but can go much higher, which doesn’t leave much room for error, especially when you consider the kinds of things that are deemed infractions.
Employees drinking from uncovered containers is a violation. So is not having paper towels close enough to a hand-washing sink, a bartender garnishing a drink without
HealthDepartment collected $27 million in fines. Though these fines might not be a huge issue for large hospitality groups or corporate restaurants, it can take a toll on smaller businesses.
Though it might seem like having a clear-cut, objective grading system would lead to restaurants being able to pass inspections if they simply follow the rules, the health code and the grading system is anything but simple.
The things the Health Department lists as violations are written in a way
The Health Department has an online guide cleverly named, “What to Expect When You’re Inspected,” which includes a guide to what counts as a violation. The personal hygiene of staff members counts for points. The guide specifies: “Personal cleanliness inadequate. Outer garment soiled with possible contaminants.” This is actually a critical violation, but in my opinion, what’s considered ‘soiled’ seems highly subjective so it’s not necessarily clear-cut.
There’s also the issue of money. In 2016, the NYC Health Department collected $27 million in fines. Though these fines might not be a huge issue for large hospitality groups or corporate restaurants, it can take a toll on smaller businesses. There’s an entire category of violations that are “unscored,” meaning they don’t affect the final letter grade, but the restaurant can be heavily fined.
Take for example the issue of signage inside a restaurant. The health code requires ‘no smoking’ signs, but in light of the recent vaping trend, there must now also be a sign that prohibits e-cigarettes. I witnessed a health inspection where this issue resulted in a violation because the place hadn’t updated their signs to include e-cigarettes. Were they technically breaking the health code? Yes. Was this restaurant dirty? Absolutely not. What was the fine for this infraction? $400.
The Health Department isn’t the only one making money off this system. A growing cottage industry has sprung up around restaurant grades. There are multiple consulting companies restaurants can hire to help them pass inspections. These companies will train staff, conduct mock inspections and find issues that need to be addressed.
Taking the Food Handlers E
xamdidn’t make me feel more secure about the city’s food safety. Just before taking the exam, the proctor held a ‘review session’ where she essentially told us the most important issues the test would cover. If you listened, you’d pass.
I recently got my NYC Department of Health Food Handlers Certificate, a process that included completing a free 15-lesson online course, and passing an in-person exam. The NYC health code mandates that there must be someone on the premises of a restaurant with this certification at all times. Though learning about food safety was useful, and made me more aware of best practices, getting the certification was also extremely eye-opening.
Admittedly, taking this exam didn’t make me feel more secure about the city’s food safety. There’s no limit to the number of times you can take the test, you can just keep taking it until you pass. At $25, its relatively low stakes. Additionally, just before taking the exam, the proctor held a ‘review session’ where she essentially told us the most important issues the test would cover. If you listened, you’d pass.
As a customer, it’s important to remember that though Health Department grades can be useful tools for making decisions about where to eat, there’s more to the story. All health inspection results are public, and in
CulEpi used the Health Department’s online form to notify them this look-up tool isn’t working (hopefully that form works!), because knowing why a restaurant has a certain grade is really important. If there are critical violations for food safety, maybe you should skip the place, but if they got a “C” for smaller, non-hazardous violations, that’s something you should know, and something the restaurant itself needs you to know.