It’s time for the city of Boston to start giving grades to the restaurants it inspects for health code violations.
It is quite common for restaurants in the city not to pass their initial annual inspection, thus requiring a reinspection. It happens even to the best of them.
For example, at Legal Sea Foods’ most recent health inspection at its State Street Boston location, conducted in January, it was cited for storing eggs and dumplings at improper temperatures.
During a March inspection, Cheers was cited for 39 health code violations. A reinspection 20 days later uncovered 13 violations, some of which were new. Not until a second reinspection in April were all the violations finally corrected.
Over the past two years, Bagelville has been cited six times for the presence of vermin. At its March inspection, for example, the inspector found “mice droppings . . . in bagel cooking area” among 26 violations. In all, Bagelville has had twelve health code inspections since 2010, all of them requiring reinspection that often involve many repeat violations, many of them serious. During that time span, the restaurant was cited for 79 violations.
You can read the City of Boston health inspection reports on what’s called the Mayor’s Food Court at cityofboston.gov/isd/health/mfc/court.asp.
But when diners sit down to eat in restaurants in some other localities in the United States, it’s a lot easier for them to get the scoop on how well restaurants are complying with health code requirements. The eateries are graded A, B or C, with the grades being posted in the restaurants. Diners do not have to rely on website reports filled with mysterious technical jargon as found on the Mayor’s Food Court.
In July 2010, New York City, for instance, began requiring the city’s 24,000 restaurants in all five boroughs to publicly post letter grades that reflect their performance on health inspections. The grade card must be posted on a front window, door or outside wall where it can be easily seen by passersby. The grades are also posted on the health department’s website.
When inspectors from the department examine a restaurant in New York City, they assign numerical points for the various violations of the health code. Different violations carry different numbers of points based on the nature and severity of the violation. The points are then added up and the restaurant is assigned a letter grade. The lower the score the better the grade: 0 to 13 points earns an “A” grade; 14 to 27 points, a “B,” and 28 or more points, a “C.”
In assessing its data over an eighteen-month period, the New York health department recently found:
— There has been an estimated projected reduction of 5,075 cases of Salmonella foodborne infections in New York City since the grading system was instituted. This represents a 20-year low. No decrease approached this magnitude in the rest of the state nor in the contiguous states of New Jersey and Connecticut.
— While 22 percent of restaurants still have signs of mice on initial inspection, this is nearly a one-third improvement since the grading began, when the figure was at 32 percent.
— Restaurants are more likely to hold hot and cold food at safe temperatures since grading was initiated.
— Only 5 percent of initial inspections found inadequate handwashing facilities, compared to 11 percent prior to grading.
— As of January, 72 percent of restaurants had “A” grades, up from 69 percent in the first six months of grading and 65 percent after a year.
This year, the New York health department also interviewed a random sample of 511 New Yorkers by telephone. Eighty-one percent of the respondents report seeing the letter grades in restaurant windows, while 88 percent consider the grades in deciding where to eat. Seeing an “A” in the window of a restaurant makes 76 percent of the respondents feel more confident about the safety of eating at that restaurant.
Many diners believe that the city health department inspects restaurants more often than it actually does — 21 percent thought that restaurants are inspected four or more times per year. The reality is that restaurants in New York are inspected once a year if they are meeting health code requirements.
Restaurant owners have complained loudly about the grading system, saying it has increased their costs and the standards are not applied evenly. But New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is not dissuaded.
“They think it’s OK to have mice and roaches and dirt and not have people wash their hands before they come back from the bathroom, and that’s simply unacceptable,” Bloomberg told the New York press. “Their complaints are going to fall on deaf ears — I can tell you that. We are not going to change.”
Steven Martinello, a sanitarian and former director of quality control at Legal Seafoods, likes the idea of grading. “The grading of restaurants is a good idea,” he says. “It holds restaurants accountable to the public, and it leads to fewer violations, which in turn leads to less foodborne illness.” Martinello notes that this is particularly important for people with weakened immune systems and children who are particularly susceptible to getting sick from foodborne illness.
So let’s get with the program.