Food safety inspections

There should only be two grades for food safety inspections: “pass” or “fail.”

By Paul King, Editorial Director

I read an article last week, posted on The Gothamist, an online blog/newspaper covering New York City, about the Department of Health inspections at Fordham University. (According to a friend of mine, an archivist with the university, the article apparently borrowed extensively from Fordham’s online student newspaper.)

The article provided a long list of violations at three of Fordham’s cafeterias, such as evidence of mice and flies in food prep and storage areas and food not being held at proper temperatures. The article then went on to quote students who allegedly found items such as a plastic nail and a pushpin in their food and ended by reporting similarly disappointing health inspections at New York University and Pace University.

Now, I admit I’ve never paid much attention to Health Department inspections. In my experience, most times you can tell whether a restaurant is worth eating in just by looking around. Seeing an “A” in the window of a neighborhood deli might make me feel better when I walk in to buy a sandwich. But I don’t see grades being displayed in a great many restaurants in Manhattan, where I work, or Staten Island, where I live.

But as I read the article in The Gothamist, one section jumped out at me. Here it is:

“The dining areas cited by the DOH will qualify for a C grade if they score as badly on follow-up inspections. The University’s Student deli scored worst with a whopping 53-point violation (28 points or over qualifies as a C grade).”

Two things bothered me as I read this. First was the idea of a “C” grade. Now, when I was in school, C was considered a passing grade. C students were average; they knew the basic material but lacked the total grasp of the subject matter that students with As and Bs had. In other words, not great but not bad.

The second thing was that the score “attained” by the Student Deli qualified it for a C, even though its total score was nearly twice the minimum requirement for a C. At what point do you actually “fail” an inspection? If you read the explanation “How we score and grade” from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, C is the lowest you can get. Of course, the health department can shut an establishment down if they repeatedly score too high. But how many diners are put at risk while inspectors allow a restaurant to get its act together?

I’m no expert, but to me letter grades should not be used, even if “F” were one of them. There should only be two grades for food safety inspections: “pass” or “fail.” Your restaurant is safe for diners, or it is not. Readers: Do you agree?