Last December, the Board of Health proposed a letter-grading system for restaurant sanitary inspections. The new system would require restaurants to post their A, B, or C grades where customers can see them, providing a more accessible alternative to trawling through the Health Department’s somewhat convoluted website.
Now, following a public hearing and month-long discussion period, the Board today voted to approve the measure. The letter grades will be based on the number of violations accumulated, and, starting in July, each restaurant will be required to post their grade in their entryway. Restaurants that get A’s will be inspected less often, and those with lower grades will be given a month to (literally) clean up their act before being required to post their B or C.
Will such a system really be of any benefit to the consumer?
If the precedent set by Los Angeles is any indication, then yes. L.A. adopted its letter grading system in 1998, and the number of restaurants meeting the highest food safety standards doubled from 40 percent to 80 percent. According to a Stanford University study, hospitalizations for certain food-borne illnesses also dropped by 20 percent.
On the other hand, while a B or C will inform a customer that a restaurant has some violations, it won’t explain what exactly those violations are. And there’s certainly some benefit in knowing that a restaurant scored a lower grade for, say, cross-contamination rather than for an improperly constructed non-food contact surface.
Also, much as a lackluster letter grade on a movie review may lead the reader to automatically dismiss a film without taking into account the accompanying criticism, a certain number of diners will inevitably refuse to eat anywhere than restaurants displaying a big fat A. And that can put smaller, cheaper places at a disadvantage — not because they’re necessarily less sanitary, but because they might have some difficulty adhering to certain DOH regulations, such as keeping trash a certain distance from the food preparation area or installing a hand-washing sink in or near the kitchen.
If nothing else, the grades will probably dissuade particularly stringent germaphobes from going anywhere near restaurants with less than an A and not have a particularly pronounced effect on regulars who will continue to be loyal to their favorite restaurants, no matter what the grade. And while it’s easy to understand why some restaurant owners won’t like the new regulation, it’s fairly safe to assume that the grades won’t have a tremendous effect on the city’s food scene. L.A. seems to have adapted well enough, and if that image-obsessed city could find a way to make unsightly letter grade placards blend harmoniously with restaurant decor, then New York probably can, too.