NYC restaurant inspection and disclosure program sucks: expert?

Restaurant inspection and disclosure programs like the A, B, C system favored by New York City, has a lot of problems: but I wouldn’t want to be the politician who says, this public health data is too complicated for you, so it’s secret.

The challenge is how to best improve disclosure systems.

Artyom Matusov, a city council analyst – not sure what that is — told The NY Post that most restaurants haven’t improved since the city instituted its letter-grade inspection system — a sham that has fattened City Hall coffers but hasn’t produced the public-health improvements touted by the city.“We have a government agency that’s willing to blatantly lie to the public. If we can’t trust the Health Department to provide real scientific data . . . then we can’t trust any agency.”

Maybe somewhat over the top, but there’s so many caveats with inspection and disclosure systems that it’s easy pickings.

The city trumpeted data that showed more restaurants got an A grade on their initial inspection since the start of the program.

But that method overrepresents the number of A grades, since A’s will “stick around longer” — up to a year before another inspection.

“The city’s restaurant grading system is completely arbitrary . . . and most restaurants aren’t doing well on the test, which itself is convoluted and impossible to figure out,” Matusov said.

Working for the council’s Governmental Operations Committee, Matusov looked at how each restaurant performed during the initial inspection cycle to see if the new system was having an effect.

He found stagnation — about 30 percent of restaurants got A’s before and after the new system started.

“[The DOH] was saying to us that what we’re seeing is clear progress . . . There’s actually no improvement since before letter grading. It’s flat,” he noted.

“There’s been no improvement to overall health of New York City restaurants. It’s just a runaround game — we’re just trying to plug holes,” said Josh Grinker, chef at Brooklyn’s Stone Park restaurant.

Grinker said there’s no telling which violations, some having nothing to do with food, an inspector will target — for example, the construction of a non-food-contact surface.

“There’s something wrong with a department that’s supposed to be protecting the health of its citizens that isn’t looking at . . . factors that actually might have an impact on people’s health,” he said.

In March, the city tweaked its inspection system, making it less punitive by making a shift toward educating business owners first before fining them.

The DOH refused to answer any questions. The City Council, through spokesman Eric Koch, said that it “continues to monitor the restaurant grading system to ensure that it is effective in keeping restaurants safe for the public and that it is fairly administered.”

Canadian restaurant inspections uncover repeated, major violations

Canada’s (self-proclaimed) biggest analysis of public health inspection reports from national chain restaurants reveals that almost one-in-four inspections has at least one major violation, a CBC Marketplace investigation has found.

Major violations, such as improper food handling, inadequate handwashing and failing to keep food at safe temperatures, have the potential to negatively affect human health. the largest investigation of its kind, Marketplace analyzed the data from a year’s worth of public health restaurant inspections in five Canadian cities — Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, Toronto and Ottawa — almost 5,000 reports in total. Two statisticians from the University of Toronto analyzed the data.

 “Food safety is a very serious matter,” says Jim Chan, a retired public health inspector who spent 36 years with Toronto Public Health. “The public has a right to know so they can make informed choices.”

In some cases, Marketplace discovered that serious problems continued even after restaurants were notified by public health inspectors:

A Subway restaurant in Calgary was cited by health inspectors three times for contaminated cleaning cloths.

A Moxie’s in Vancouver failed to keep food at a safe temperature during three consecutive inspections.

A Tim Hortons in Calgary was written up by inspectors five times for a fly infestation.

According to the reports, handwashing was a significant problem in most cities, as was general kitchen cleanliness.

sylvannus.toronto.2005In addition to the statistical analysis of report results, Marketplace used a hidden camera to document troubling behaviour at several locations.

​Retired Vancouver public health inspector Domenic Losito was alarmed by footage showing garbage strewn all over the kitchen floor at one restaurant.

​“At least try to get the garbage in the garbage can, but – I think I would have walked into this place, walked out and filed a closure notice right away. I just – it’s just unacceptable,” he said.

Restaurants Canada, the group representing the restaurant industry, refused to speak on camera about the investigation.

The group opposes the public posting of inspection grades, such as those used by Toronto Public Health in its award-winning DineSafe program. In Toronto, restaurants are required to post inspection results where patrons can see them. The DineSafe cards are colour-coded (green for “pass,” yellow for “conditional pass,” and red for “closed”) to make results easy to understand.

Restaurants Canada says the yellow cards are “problematic and misleading” because there are many factors that depend on subjective assessment and that grades present an oversimplified picture of safety.

The group says that consumers who want to know how a restaurant has performed during inspections should access the reports online.

While many jurisdictions make inspection reports available online, some do not make results public.

NYC reforms restaurant inspection system following outcry

Less than a year after New York City’s letter grading system underwent a massive rehaul, the Department of Health and the City Council have announced further changes to the system.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and the DOH announced that restaurants will see a nearly 25 per cent reduction in fines associated with inspections by the agency, bringing fines back down to they were before the grading system was adopted. Piggybacking on previous revisions, violations will be given fixed penalties, leaving out room for discretionary figures calculated by inspectors.

To further reduce violations during inspections, restaurants can “request a consultative, ungraded and penalty-free inspection to receive tailored advice about maintaining the best food safety practices at their establishment.” Restaurant owners had been hiring consultants to spot problem areas and ideally prevent fines during official inspections from the agency.

Restaurant grades in Hamilton (the one in Canada)

The next time you walk into a Hamilton restaurant, have a look at the front door or window. There’s a new, more colourful food safety inspection disclosure program being rolled out throughout the city this year.

Before 2014, restaurants would receive a green certificate to hang in their window if they passed a health inspection. However, the city had no way of indicating to the public if rest.inspection.hamilton.feb.14there were health or cleanliness issues inside short of pulling down that certificate — something most customers wouldn’t notice.

Now, whenever a public health inspector visits a restaurant for an inspection, it receives one of three certificates, depending on cleanliness and safety: green for a pass, yellow for a conditional pass and red for a fail, which means the business must close.

Similar systems have existed in the GTA and Halton regions for years, and Hamilton has been playing catch up. As part of the new program, the city has launched a website where people can check a restaurant’s health and safety inspection records.

These measures were taken to create a more effective way of disclosing food safety to the public, says Richard MacDonald, the city food safety manager.

The city performs between 400 to 450 health inspections in restaurants a month, broken down between high, medium and low risk establishments.

The city’s new colour coded system was first implemented on Jan. 1, and since it was ushered in, inspectors have issued 16 yellow cards for critical infractions and three red cards for closures – which is about average in the city, MacDonald says.

The three red cards were handed out to companies that had no hot water, because of frozen or burst pipes during January’s intense cold.

In 2012, 231 green pass cards were removed from restaurants, compared to 192 in 2013.

MacDonald says that according to inspector feedback, restaurant operators are heeding the new system. “They’re paying attention,” he said. “They don’t want to be wearing their reputation on the front door,” he said.

Full disclosure: Toronto Public Health creates institutional outbreak website

Public health folks seem to wrestle with when to make investigation information public: they want to have enough data to be confident before fingering any specific foods or locales. Releasing incorrect or incomplete information, like the Florida tomato industry often points out, can affect business. Sitting on info can further put individuals at risk.
Schaffner often credits epidemiologist Paul Mead with summarizing the problem “If you’re wrong, you went public too early; if you’re right, you went [public] too late.”torontopublichealthexhibitorlogo

Having a consistent policy on what gets released when is lacking in the public health world – and Toronto Public Health (TPH), in an effort to increase openness and transparency, is pulling back the curtain on outbreak investigations. According to the Toronto Star’s Robert Cribb, TPH has begun listing all current confirmed and investigated healthcare-linked outbreaks on their website, and will update the list weekly.

For the first time, all outbreaks in Toronto nursing homes, retirement homes and hospitals will be publicly posted on a city website — a new public health disclosure system prompted by a Toronto Star-Ryerson University investigation.
Each Thursday, Toronto Public Health will now detail outbreaks by nature, institution name and address, as well as indicate whether it is still active. The reports will include both gastroenteric outbreaks (such as those causing nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever) and respiratory infections (which result in symptoms such as coughing, runny noses, sore throats, fevers).
The current report, covering the week of Feb. 13-19, lists 15 outbreaks — 10 in long-term care homes, three in retirement homes and two in hospitals. Ten were still active at time of reporting.

“(The new disclosure system) is a good idea,” said Doug Powell, a Canadian food safety expert. “They’re already collecting this information, so making it public isn’t that much more work. They work for the public and they’re there to serve public health. And from a personal point of view, I’d want to know if one of my relatives were in one of those institutions. It brings a level of public accountability.” 

Milwaukee may begin posting inspection grades on restaurant doors

Old Milwaukee, like the discount beer you are in Ontario, like lost episodes of Laverne and Shirley, you have now decided to join the 21st century and post restaurant inspection grades on doors.

But not without some angst.

Milwaukee Common Council President Michael Murphy wants to give restaurants a grade for hygiene and post it on the front door.

Murphy is working on an ordinance that would direct the city’s health department to set up a grading system, and while the legislative details’t been hashed out, he plans to fill those in over the next three weeks.

“This is something I’ve been pushing for years,” Murphy said. “The whole point is to encourage restaurant owners to stay clean and let the marketplace dictate the response. So many foodborne pathogens have made people sick, it’s incumbent upon government to help businesses to do a better job.”

The city’s health department has been evaluating best practices for grading.

We can help with that:

Filion, K. and Powell, D.A. 2009. The use of restaurant inspection disclosure systems as a means of communicating food safety information. Journal of Foodservice 20: 287-297.

The World Health Organization estimates that up to 30% of individuals in developed countries become ill from food or water each year. Up to 70% of these illnesses are estimated to be linked to food prepared at foodservice establishments. Consumer confidence in the safety of food prepared in restaurants is fragile, varying significantly from year to year, with many consumers attributing foodborne illness to foodservice. One of the key drivers of restaurant choice is consumer perception of the hygiene of a restaurant. Restaurant hygiene information is something consumers desire, and when available, may use to make dining decisions.

Filion, K. and Powell, D.A. 2011. Designing a national restaurant inspection disclosure system for New Zealand. Journal of Food Protection 74(11): 1869-1874

The World Health Organization estimates that up to 30% of individuals in developed countries become ill from contaminated food or water each year, and up to 70% of these illnesses are estimated to be linked to food service facilities. The aim of restaurant inspections is to reduce foodborne outbreaks and enhance consumer confidence in food service. Inspection disclosure systems have been developed as tools for consumers and incentives for food service operators. Disclosure systems are common in developed countries but are inconsistently used, possibly because previous research has not determined the best format for disclosing inspection results. This study was conducted to develop a consistent, compelling, and trusted inspection disclosure system for New Zealand. Existing international and national disclosure systems were evaluated. Two cards, a letter grade (A, B, C, or F) and a gauge (speedometer style), were designed to represent a restaurant’s inspection result and were provided to 371 premises in six districts for 3 months. Operators (n = 269) and consumers (n = 991) were interviewed to determine which card design best communicated inspection results. Less than half of the consumers noticed cards before entering the premises; these data indicated that the letter attracted more initial attention (78%) than the gauge (45%). Fifty-eight percent (38) of the operators with the gauge preferred the letter; and 79% (47) of the operators with letter preferred the letter. Eighty-eight percent (133) of the consumers in gauge districts preferred the letter, and 72% (161) of those in letter districts preferring the letter. Based on these data, the letter method was recommended for a national disclosure system for New Zealand.

Are NYC health inspectors inflating restaurant grades?

So asks Nell Casey of The Gothamist.

New York’s restaurant inspection system has been criticized for being unfairly punitive since its controversial inception under the Bloomberg administration. Even though fines have been dramatically reduced and system altered to be more equitable, restaurant owners are still struggling with poor grades, which can severely impact their business.

That’s why it’s surprising to learn that city health inspectors seem to rather give a restaurant an “A” grade if the score hovers close to the 13 points or less needed to obtain that letter. On his data-heavy blog, Pratt City & Regional Planning faculty member Ben Wellington studies grading data since the program’s beginnings in 2010 and finds that three times as many restaurants received a score of 13 than a score of 14, which would have earned them a “B” grade. Wellington surmises that inspectors must be using “discretion” when issuing their final tally of violations.

Much like a teacher might boost a student’s final grade when taking other factors (attendance, participation, effort, etc.) into consideration, Wellington believes inspectors are “turning a blind eye towards that last violation that would put a restaurant over the edge.” 

Washington woman on mission for restaurant grading system

It’s deeply weird or deeply hypocritical that Seattle, self-proclaimed home to many things food and Super Bowl champs, doesn’t have a decent restaurant inspection disclosure system.

Sarah Schaht, a longtime Seattle resident, who had been stricken with E. coli previously, said, “I had internal bleeding and stomach cramps that were debilitating.”

Ambassel Ethiopian Restaurant was closed down by King County health inspectors last  But the owners have since reopened with a new name: Laco Melza.

Schaht chose the Ethiopian restaurant because customers on Yelp gave it nearly four stars.  What she didn’t know was the restaurant had failed six health inspections since 2010 and had one of the worst inspection scores of any Seattle restaurant last year.

Among the violations on March 6:

-Ready-to-eat food surfaces were being used to prepare raw meat.

-Workers weren’t washing their hands.

-There were insects and rodents in the restaurant.

“You have to be an expert to understand the scoring system,” said Schaht, because there are “red scores, blue scores, unsatisfactory, satisfactory.”

Schaht has started a petition to pressure King County health officials to adopt a simple letter grade system, in which restaurants are required to post an A, B, C or F grade in their front window so diners know how the establishment performed on its latest inspection. Cities in nine states have letter grade requirements, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City.

KIRO 7 took the data from other cities to officials at Public Health–Seattle & King County to ask why they’ve opposed switching to a letter grade system. But they refused our requests for an interview.

Instead, we were given a statement that said the health department is currently looking into the letter grade system, after 1,768 people signed Schaht’s petition.

Mr. Heavyfoot goes to buy milk (M. Piedlourd va achete(r) du lait)

Mr. Heavyfoot was a recurring character on the Canadian sketch, Kids in the Hall, 20 years ago, featuring Dave Foley.

His daughter, 10-year-old Alina, has employed her father for a new take that she wrote and directed.

But that’s not France, the A grade in the window makes me think Los Angeles.


When a restaurant review turns to barf, it’s time to rethink restaurant inspections

Brad A. Johnson of the Orange County Register in California was planning to review a restaurant in Newport Beach this week. Instead, he got food poisoning there. Everyone at his table got sick. Unspeakably sick. For days. It was awful.

As the sickness intensified, Johnson went online and looked up health inspection reports for the restaurant. Inspections are a matter of public record, but nobody ever looks at This place has received a serious violation on every one of its inspections since opening two years ago. Coincidence?

Johnson  writes, If this restaurant had opened in Los Angeles instead of Newport Beach, it would have to display a letter grade of C, or possibly B, in the front window – and I never would have dined there. But because it is in Orange County, there’s no indication whatsoever that this place has been cited repeatedly for problems that pose very serious and immediate health risks to its customers.

It’s time to restart the debate about letter grades for restaurant health inspections in Orange County.

I’ve been reviewing restaurants in Orange County for a little more than a year now, and I’ve been poisoned on four separate occasions. This most recent case was by far the worst.

I worked as a restaurant critic in Los Angeles for 10 years. I always made a point of not reviewing restaurants with a grade lower than A. And I got sick only twice. Another coincidence?

Restaurants in Orange County are allowed to repeatedly fail their inspections without any consequences. They can “fix” the problem – but not the underlying behavior or lackadaisical mentality – and be back in business in a matter of minutes. Even in instances where the health department shuts down a restaurant and revokes its permit, the restaurant can go buy a new one and be right back in business, sometimes the same day.

The placards currently displayed in restaurant windows in Orange County are useless. A restaurant might pass inspection by the skin of its teeth, with serious repeat violations, yet it gets the exact same placard as a restaurant that receives a near-perfect score. That’s messed up. That’s why I got sick.

In 2008, Orange County came close to adapting a letter-grade system similar to the ones used effectively in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Riverside, New York, Philadelphia and many other places. The Orange County Grand Jury looked into the matter and, after hearing extensive testimony from consumers and restaurateurs, strongly adapting a letter-grade or color-coded system that would give consumers a clearer picture of every restaurant’s health score. County health inspectors backed the idea. This paper wrote extensively about the process and determined that if Orange County were to institute a letter-grade system, roughly 40 percent of the restaurants here would fail to score an A.

Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, the Allegheny County Health Department soon will roll out the A, B, C and Ds of a new restaurant grading program, officials said.

Critics, though, worry that a letter grade could misinform diners and unfairly hurt businesses.