NYC Sanitation Grades Are Under Fire

The New York City Department of Health’s sanitation grading system is under fire after it slammed Michelin three star restaurant Per Se with a C rating. The DOH sanitation grades are meant to inform customers about the cleanliness of a particular restaurant with the intention that chefs will be motivated to maintain a healthy kitchen and diners will be protected from food borne illnesses. However, many have criticized the system as being out of touch with the needs of modern kitchens. Furthermore, the amount of revenue that the city receives from sanitation fines has been seen as an incentive for inspectors to continue assigning as many infractions as possible. The downgrading of the popular Thomas Keller establishment is being received as evidence of injustice in the system.

Sanitation regulations
The scoring system that inspectors use to grade the cleanliness of restaurants is on a 1,000 point scale, with various point values assigned to different health infractions. The more points a restaurant receives, the lower their grade. Unfortunately, with such a large number of possible infractions, restaurant grading is often the prerogative of the inspector as opposed to an objective process. Out of these 1,000 points, it only takes 14 for a restaurant to be downgraded to a B, 28 or more results in a C, the lowest possible score.

Unreasonable expectations
While the sanitation of Per Se’s kitchen is widely regarded among industry professionals as optimal, the restaurant’s practices have landed it with a C. Cited infractions included hot food being held below 140 degrees and cold food being held above 41 degrees. Many have claimed that these temperature restrictions are ignorant of modern cooking techniques. Cooking a burger rare, tempering food once it comes out of the oven and serving cheese and salad all require food temperatures outside of those required by the DOH. In addition, the strict mandate requiring chefs to wear rubber gloves at all times has been seen as inimical to traditional cooking practices such as sushi preparation.

The stakes
The food grading system produced $45.6 million in revenue during 2011. This money came from the fines assessed by the DOH. In addition, many New Yorkers say they consider the grades when choosing where to eat. The widespread trust in the sanitation grades signals a responsibility for them to be fair, as a bad grade has the power to put smaller restaurants out of business completely. While the diners of New York would like to be protected from the threat of food borne illness, many feel the current system is not the best way of providing safety.

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