How the Post Messed Up on Its Report on Restaurant-Inspection Fines

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Bend over: The New York City Health Department logged 273,999 fines in 2012. Photo: iStockphoto

The New York Post takes a look at the staggering number of restaurant-inspection-related fines issued by the Health Department — 198,779 so far this year. Without really getting into specifics, the paper runs with this number and concludes that most fines stem from "breaches unrelated to food quality." The takeaway, as usual, is that the DOH makes serious bank by exploiting small business owners, who are perpetually outgunned by officials wielding labyrinthine sections of code. What's worse is that by creating a depiction of fine-happy health inspectors who are single-mindedly devoted to writing up "bathrooms running out of paper products, cracked tiles, dirty aprons" and other things that aren't expressly "food-related," the Post indirectly suggests that more serious health concerns may be falling by the wayside.

The Post focuses on "stats" gleaned from the agency's data and asserts that a number of the 182,757 of the 273,999 fines logged in 2012 were related to things like "walls, ceilings and equipment being poorly maintained," which are not apparent threats to public health. Walls? Ceilings? you may ask. What about raw chicken or undercooked fish?

But this feat of statistical misdirection is meant to blow your mind: If city restaurants were fined a total of $51.4 million dollars last year, after all, doesn't this mean that $35 million of that had nothing to do with salmonella and noroviruses?

No, in turns out, because the Post is only relating the total number of fines and doesn't get into dollar amounts. (An explanation that fines "vary widely" is buried at the bottom of the tenth paragraph.)

Of the figure of 273,999 fines issued in 2012, the Post reports that 31.9 percent of those violations are categorized in the "all others" department. It doesn't have to explain that it didn't carefully examine the actual violations connected to those 87,405 fines.

The paper instead quotes New York City Hospitality Alliance executive Andrew Rigie on violations stemming from the small stuff. “Many of them are non-food related — dimly lit light bulbs, not having the proper documentation to show that a product has no trans fats in it,” he says. The article goes on:

Other common fines unrelated to food quality include bathrooms running out of paper products, cracked tiles, dirty aprons — even scratched cutting boards, Rigie said.

Notice how Rigie uses the word many, where the Post says most. Moreover, the paper makes great use of the term "food quality," which isn't a key metric of Health Department inspections anywhere — it's food safety they look out for. Moreover, that em-dash placement above means that Rigie didn't necessary say that fines stemming from dirty aprons and bathrooms without paper products aren't directly connected to food safety. Rigie was commenting on cutting boards.

If a Health Department inspector witnesses food prep happening in a basement where there are exposed waste-carrying pipes above the mise en place, that's a violation directly related to food. A cook who wipes his spatula on his apron every time he flips a burger throughout the course of a lunch shift is another violation directly related to food. A bathroom that isn't stocked with toilet paper or paper towels is yet another violation directly related to food.

Take this depressing new study, in which Michigan State University researchers determined that only 5 percent of people in restaurant and bar bathrooms wash their hands correctly. How much does the risk of food-borne illness increase if those people happen to be restaurant employees and there aren't any paper towels or toilet paper in the bathroom?

Restaurants like the 85-year-old West Village institution El Faro are being put out of business forever because of insurmountable fines levied against small businesses by the Health Department. While there may eventually be some financial relief for restaurateurs trying to negotiate an onslaught of inspection fines with the cost of doing business, if today's Post rundown on fines is any indication, the Health Department needs to develop better models of conveying risk to the public that extend well beyond letter grades. Inspectors may be doing a decent job protecting the public from food-borne illness and other risks, but the agency is still doing a poor job explaining how it goes about its business.

‘Fine’ dining outrage [NYP]
Eww! Only 5 percent wash hands correctly [Michigan State University]
Earlier: City Council Seeks Lower Fines for DOH-Inspected Restaurants
Earlier: Health Inspectors Really Need to Start Spending More Time in Restaurant Kitchens