After the Department of Health announced on Tuesday that restaurants will be required to post their health-inspection results in the form of letter grades, Landmarc owner Marc Murphy (an outspoken opponent of the move) told us, “It’s going to be hurting a lot of businesses.” Pure Food and Wine owner Sarma Melngailis agreed, via the comments: “From a restaurant that always gets docked points for stuff most people wouldn’t find offensive, I agree this is messed up.” Now Murphy is circulating a statement explaining, in greater detail, why he finds the measure “frustrating,” to say the least.
There has been a lot of confusion in the past couple of days about the Department of Heath’s recent decision to implement letter grading. As the owner of three Manhattan restaurants and the Vice President of the Manhattan chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association, I wanted to take a moment to make it clear that we are in complete agreement that the public has every right to know about the health and sanitation of New York City restaurants. I believe health inspections are an important part of keeping restaurants accountable, and we are diligent about maintaining a clean and safe environment for our customers in each of our restaurants — it’s what keeps us in business. What I am opposed to, however, is that the way in which this new letter grading system is being proposed will make these reports misleading to the public, not to mention that this regulation was passed as a rule through the DOH rather than as a law through the City Council.
What I find most frustrating about this proposal is the arbitrary nature of its content. For example, if this is really about keeping the public safe, then why aren’t food carts, hospitals and school cafeterias included in this letter grading initiative? And if this is, as the DOH says, a way of informing the public about restaurant cleanliness, then will it take the human error factor into consideration? Health inspections are almost never performed by the same inspector twice and where one inspector might find something worthy of a penalty, another may look at the exact same thing and come to a different conclusion. Shouldn’t there be a more comprehensive and objective list that is also available to the public, which guides each inspection to ensure that all restaurants are judged consistently and fairly?
My biggest concern about letter grading, in fact, is simply that I’m not at all sure the grades are going to be based solely on food safety and, ultimately, the safety of the customer. Is it fair that a restaurant with a non-food related violation such as a leaky faucet or a burned out light bulb receive the same letter grade as a restaurant with a far more serious food-related violation? Isn’t this going to be harmful to small businesses that might suffer a lower grade due to penalties that are not even related to food safety at all? With these arbitrary grades, a restaurant that receives a “C” is technically passing, but if the public is led to believe that all inspections are based solely on food safety, then how can any restaurant with anything less than “A” pass the test? And how can they stay open?
Ultimately, doesn’t it seem reasonable to say that a restaurant is either safe to eat in or not? Would you feel comfortable dining somewhere that is “sort of” clean? I guess my question is: Is this system giving the customer a false sense of security?