Bloomberg’s Alphabet Soup: Is NYC’s Letter Grading System Any Good?

letters-A-B-C-spelled-in-alphabet-soup

This week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg released a report on the successes of New York City’s restaurant grading system. The mayor attributes the reduction in Salmonella illnesses and a 9.2% increase in restaurant revenue to the letter grading system. NYC isn’t the only place posting inspection results where the public can easily find them.

Health departments all across the country are trying to develop new, innovative, and cutting-edge ways to disclose inspection results. Many health districts simply post inspections online and let the public access the information and decide for themselves. What becomes more difficult is when health districts decide to add grading and ranking to the mix. By doing this, the health districts stop being transparent and begin to add their own commentary on the scores. For example, when they start putting letter grades on restaurants, they are telling the public what they think an A restaurant is rather than only providing the data and letting the public decide what is important.

False Sense of Security

Seventy-two percent of NYC’s restaurants have a letter “A” grade and, as the mayor points out, the public is looking for those As. It makes sense that more people would feel comfortable and secure by going into a restaurant with an A grade. However, the reality is the A only reflects the state of the restaurant during one inspection on one day, only a brief period of time. The public shouldn’t be lead to believe a restaurant is always providing grade-A quality every day of the year. In fact, the NYC letter grading system does allow for some leeway.

A Second Chance

Let’s look closer at the NYC inspection process. When a restaurant scores less than an A on its “initial inspection,” it gets another chance to improve. That inspection goes ungraded and the inspector comes back a month later for a re-inspection. After that inspection, the restaurant takes the score it’s given. If it’s an A, the restaurant won’t get inspected again for a whole year. The restaurants that don’t score an A get inspected more frequently.

Everyone Can Receive an A

A positive point about NYC’s letter grading process is that it gives restaurants a chance to improve and everyone has a chance to be an “A” restaurant. Other health districts that provide letter grades or rankings use a curve that allows only the top 25% to receive the top rank or grade. All restaurants should have a real opportunity to achieve the top grade. This also gives inspectors more time and resources to devote to the lower-performing facilities.

A Month of Solid Food Safety

A potential problem with this process is that once a restaurant receives an A grade, it could become lazy with its food safety standards for 12 months before having another inspection. The restaurant’s staff won’t have to worry about the initial inspection because they know they will get a chance to improve on the re-inspection a month later. Theoretically, a restaurant only needs to clean up and fly straight for that 1 month out of the year.

No Risk for Losing an A

A perfect example of this is the recent report on “A” restaurants in New York City that decide not to follow the rules. The New York Times ran an article about restaurants that choose not to follow food-safety guidelines such as wearing gloves when necessary or not cooking meats properly. The article took the angle that these facilities were putting their grade A in jeopardy by knowingly not following the rules. However, in reality, they really aren’t putting their A at risk. These restaurants can knowingly put the public at risk as long as they follow the rules after the initial inspection, until they get through the re-inspection, which could be as soon as 9 days later. Then they get to post their “A” and go back to putting the public at risk for the next 12 months. In Bloomberg’s report, only 41% of restaurants recieved an A on their initial inspection. That’s the real number—not 72%.

What about All the Illness Data?

As Dan Flynn points out in his article on this topic, the mayor’s report doesn’t address the other illnesses in the city. The city only chose to focus on Salmonella. What were the other illness numbers? If you are going to make claims that the letter grading program has reduced foodborne illness, all the data needs to be disclosed. I’m really curious to know how much Norovirus, Hepatitis, E. coli, and Shigella NYC had and how it compares to the numbers before the letter grading system was implemented. The numbers of cases with these illnesses may have gone up.

NYC has developed an innovative program that seems to have very real results, and it benefits public health as well as the restaurant industry. No program is perfect, but the city has done its best to help everyone. Overall, I think the program is very positive, but I worry about the public getting a false sense of security when they see an A on a NYC restaurant. In my opinion, only about half the As really deserve it since they earned those As during an initial inspection.

Originally published 3.10.12

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