DICEY DINING Part 3: Grading systems

BUFFALO, NY (WIVB) – “Is it a safe place to go to eat? Are they abiding by the rules? ” says Lockport resident Carol Mayer as she leaves a restaurant cited by inspectors.

Restaurants in New York City have letter grades posted where people can see them.

“I don’t know why they don’t do that here. it’s a simple piece of paper,” says Kraig Adams, restaurant patron on Elmwood Avenue.

While New York City gives restaurants letter grades, Albany County rates them Excellent, Food or Fair.

Albany County rates restaurants

In Albany county, not only are restaurant inspections posted online where people can have access to them but the restaurants themselves are now required to post the results where their patrons can see them.

“I think it’s a nice thing to see if restaurants have good compliance,” says Albany resident Julianne Madsen.

Marcia Lenehan, director of Environmental Health at the Albany County Health Department says the rating system is based on the number and severity of violations found.

“Excellent, good and fair are very positive words and I wanted it to be not necessarily negative but positive for the restaurants,” says Lenehan.  “Not so that they’re looking like they’re great because fair is not that good.”

Joe Marino, who operates Betty Boops Diner in Albany, says he knows all about the negative impact from a subpar inspection rating.

“I got to live with fair when I had excellent before?” asks Marino.

The restaurant received a fair rating following a September inspection. He says it’s cost him about $2,000 a week in business.

“It was a hot day. They come in, and they put the thermometer in everything and everything’s warm because of the heat,” says Marino.  “Now you’re going to stick me with a fair compliance because it’s too hot outside and the refrigeration’s not working up to par.”

According to Albany County health officials, Marino’s restaurant was re-inspected weeks later and was upgraded from fair to good.

Tracing illness to restaurants

The state requires counties to inspect restaurants to insure that they are operating safely.  In New York State 3,979 people have been sickened from food borne illness over the past five years with 40 percent traced to restaurants; 125 of those sickened ate in Western New York restaurants.

Push for letter grade system

State Assemblywoman Amy Paulin of Westchester County has been pushing for a letter grade system similar to what is done in New York City.

SBut she says the restaurant industry has been pushing back, as have county health departments who warn they may not be able to meet demands by restaurants for re-inspections.

Paulin has since settled for a bill that requires all county restaurant inspections to be posted online by next year. The bill passed the State Legislature and awaits the signature of Gov. Andrew Cuomo to become law.

“We do believe that ultimately the system that they’re using in New York City, which is the letter grade system, is the right way to go,” says Paulin.

Restaurant industry pushes back

But, the restaurant industry sees the issue differently.

“It’s unnecessary, it’s expensive, it’s misleading. and frankly it just doesn’t work,” says Daniel Garvey, vice-chairman of the New York State Restaurant Association and the food and beverage director of The Roycroft Inn in East Aurora.

“A restaurant could have a violation so egregious as vermin, rats, and they could still get an A, or another restaurant could have a broken light bulb, a leaky faucet, and perhaps production dust, and they would get a B,” Garvey explains.  “So, someone would look at that restaurant and say well they got a B and they get an A. You don’t really know why they get these letter grades.”

But Scott Ecker of the Niagara County Health Department says even non-critical blue violations, which focus on cleanliness and equipment maintenance, could lead to a critical red violation.

“If you have dirty conditions in your restaurant it might help bring in rodents and insects, and things like that. And then you might have a contamination of food source. So, basically it could lead into that,” said Ecker.

Skeptical about letter grades

Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein remains skeptical about letter grading.

She says they can be deceptive and not give people enough information to decide where to eat.

“The literature really suggests that there is really no change in the incidence of food borne outbreaks and illnesses from eating at restaurants as a result of the restaurant grading systems,” Burstein says.

But according to the New York City Health Department the number of salmonella cases in the city were down 10 percent in 2012 from 2010 when restaurant grading went into effect.

State Assemblywoman Amy Paulin says she’ll continue to push for a statewide letter grade system but knows it’s going to take a little time.

“I believe this is important to do. We need the right health and safety information for those places where we consume food,” Paulin says.

The idea makes sense to Lockport resident Carol Mayer, “I think it’s a good idea. You do it with movies, let’s do it with food.  I think it’s a good idea,” she said.

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