Should I Freak Out at the New DOH Letter Grading of Restaurants?


Kenneth G asks: What will the impact of letter grades be on the city’s restaurants? Should I be packing up and moving somewhere else?

Dear Kenneth: All around me foodies are going crazy, worrying about the Department of Health’s new A-B-C letter grading for restaurants. I would caution you to wait and see what happens. A similar (though demonstrably less dumb and punitive) system has been in place in Los Angeles for over a decade, and there seem to be just as many small ma-and-pa restaurants — to which the grading system is most onerous, since they can’t afford to buy expensive refrigeration equipment or move sinks — as there were before the system started, and perhaps more.

In fact, I know some avid Angelenos who make eating in “B” and “C” establishments a matter of pride and preference, figuring that those are the smallest and most delicious places, where traditional food preparation methods are still intact — Peking ducks drying in front of the fan, Italian sausages curing over the counter, and so forth. Your own eyes, ears, and nose are still the most effective defense against restaurant-borne illness. If a place is filthy looking, or smells bad, or you hear someone throwing up in the lavatory, you’re well advised to vacate the premises, whatever grade is posted in the window.

What this new system represents is an attention grab on the part of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, an organization that I’ve railed against on previous occasions. Sure, they do many good things, such as providing free condoms, creating gruesome anti-smoking commercials, and spraying for bugs in neighborhoods where being poisoned seems preferable to being bitten.

But, as I’ve said before, their methods are mired in the Victorian era, with the “sanitarians” — as the inspectors are called — confined to counting individual mouse feces with tweezers and a magnifying glass, sticking thermometers in milk bottles, and making sure that old men making pizza do it with plastic gloves on.

The plastic glove rule is particularly worthless. You can wear your plastic gloves into the bathroom, wipe your ass, and still emerge without washing your hands. Moreover, wearing gloves actually interferes with hygienic food preparation, since gloves coming in contact with bacteria can retain that bacteria on the surface, and cooks wearing gloves are less likely to wash their hands or change gloves, even if they’ve stuck their fingers in something dodgy.

The system is stupid and antiquated, and never does Q-tip touch petri dish. In other words, the methods used often have no demonstrable correlation with actual food-borne illness. Testing chickens for salmonella or E. coli? Not within their purview or expertise. Mice and roaches — many of us have them in our crappy apartments — have never been proven a vector for disease. The sanitarians from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene are not health inspectors, they’re aestheticians.

I’ve made these complaints before, most notably when the city’s best pizza parlor, Di Fara, was shut down and its proprietor humiliated by this insipid and shady organization. There was no evidence that anyone had become sick from Dom DeMarco’s pies, and the very targeting of the place suggested that the department was out for publicity alone. I contend that we as diners have a right to have him make his pies in the traditional way — without plastic gloves. And think of the flotilla of discarded gloves clogging the landfills and strangling fish in the oceans, since they’re never recycled.

And let’s not forget about historical corruption in the department, in which armies of health inspectors were arrested for taking bribes in the late ’80s, and individual cases of corruption have occurred much more recently.

The upshot of all this? It’s important to stress that the system used for inspection has not been altered or modernized — it’s still the same tweezers-and-mouse-turd approach. As the new FAQ provided by the deparment notes: “No, the Health Department has not changed the way it conducts inspections.” It’s back to the future for these bozos.

Still, the grading system represents a new carrot-on-a-stick approach on their part, offering less frequent inspections for places that reduce the number of “violations,” which might actually mean less pestering from the department in the long run. With a limited number of sanitarians and 24,000 restaurants, the amount of damage the DOHAMH can do is somewhat limited. Indeed, letter grades are not promised for most establishments till a year has gone by, and some provisions of the new system won’t go into effect until 2014.

What that means is that we have plenty of time to scrutinize — and object to — the process. Indeed, the New York State Restaurant Association is already mounting a vigorous campaign against the new system, claiming that the inspections are only a brief snapshot of transitory conditions (oops! left the milk out again!), while the effects of a B or C linger for months or even years.

To the extent that awarding letter grades — treating restaurants like recalcitrant students — forestalls places actually being closed by offering more intermediate remedies, it might even be a good thing. And think of the thrill of finding an excellent establishment rated C, and knowing how good the food is, in spite of the meddling sanitarians. Let’s put them in sanitariums, where they belong. It would certainly improve our own “mental hygiene.”