NYC Council Cites Complaints on Mayor’s Restaurant Grades

A New York City Council survey of 1,397 restaurants found that even among establishments the Health Department rates “A” for compliance, owners say inspectors lack consistency, fairness and expertise.

Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a Manhattan Democrat, said today she agreed with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policy to assign and display letter grades showing results of restaurant health inspections, yet owners’ complaints and survey responses show problems in how the department has run the program.

Scott Rosenberg, co-owner of Sushi Yasuda, said an inspector destroyed a $10,000 piece of tuna last year after a chef prepared the fish with bare hands, as chefs have done for hundreds of years. His restaurant, rated among the city’s best in several reviews, has consistently received a top “A” grade from the Health Department,

“There was no listening to any explanation,” Rosenberg said at a City Hall news conference hosted by Quinn. “It just goes to their training and education. I’m sure the inspectors are not getting sufficient training on a consistent level.”

John Kelly, the Health Department’s chief spokesman, said the council’s survey “seems to serve more as a complaint box” for the industry. As for preparing sushi with bare hands, Kelly said, “Doctors perform brain surgery while wearing gloves. We understand tradition, but our aim is to minimize exposure to contamination.”

Concern About Jobs

Dining establishments provide jobs for about 190,000 people in New York City, according to the state Labor Department, part of a leisure and hospitality industry employing 336,000. Bloomberg has promoted the industry with an international marketing campaign aimed at diversifying the city’s economy.

“We cannot engage in governmental behavior that is going to cost us jobs that are just too hard to create,” Quinn, 46, said before convening a City Council hearing on the inspections. The issue, she said, “is how you keep the public safe and healthy in restaurants but do it in a way that supports restaurants, not penalizes them.”

The council hearing had been scheduled before Bloomberg held a news conference yesterday where he credited the letter-grading system for a 14 percent drop in reported food-borne illness from salmonella bacteria last year.

The survey found that among participants who received the highest grade, 66 percent rated the inspection and letter-grading system “poor,” and 68 percent said it had increased their cost of doing business.

Less Profit

“Everybody in our industry is taking less profit home,” said Herb Wetanson, who owns 10 restaurants the department has rated “A,” including Dallas BBQ. “The workers suffer, we can’t offer them a raise, but we can’t pass on the cost to the public one dollar,” he told reporters before the hearing.

The department should consider creating an ombudsman to whom restaurant owners could complain, and abandoning uniforms that risk alarming diners, said Quinn, who is organizing for a possible 2013 campaign for mayor. Periodic meetings between department policy makers and owners would improve communication, she said.

In July 2010 the Health Department began requiring food-service businesses to post letter grades corresponding to scores received in sanitary inspections in which restaurants receive points for violations. A score of 13 or less merits an “A,” 14 to 27 gets a “B” and 28 or more receives a “C.”

The council survey shouldn’t be considered a scientific document, Quinn said. Instead, it should be used to improve the system.

“This is about a concept of a system that we in the council support, but we want to make sure it’s fair, it’s consistent, it’s honest, it’s truthful and it’s done in a way that isn’t about revenue generation but about giving the public information it needs,” Quinn said.

The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.

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