07/21/2011 06:32 pm ET | Updated Sep 20, 2011

Report Cards Send Some Restaurants Back to School

While many restaurant patrons have embraced the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's new letter grade evaluation system, the lack of clarity of these marks may have lured even the most informed of foodies into a false sense of safety. In July 2010, the Department of Health began conducting unannounced inspections and assigning letter grades to restaurants according to a point system. The fewer points a restaurant accumulates, the better. If an establishment scores between 0-13, it receives an A, 14-27 earns a B, and if the restaurant scores 28 or more points, it gets a C.

Restaurants accrue points depending on the types of violation and how many violations they are assessed. According to the Department of Health's website, "A public health hazard, such as failing to keep food at the right temperature to prevent the growth of bacteria, triggers a minimum of 7 points. If the violation cannot be corrected before the end of the inspection, the Health Department may close the restaurant until the hazard is corrected. A critical violation, such as the presence of rodents, carries a minimum of 5 points. A general violation, such as not properly sanitizing cooking utensils, is assigned at least 2 points."

Once the violation is cited, the inspector then rates the level of the violation. For example, if only one food item were stored at the improper temperature, the inspector would mark down seven points. If, however, the inspector found several such instances, more points would accrue. Four or more different contaminated food items constitute a "level 4 violation" resulting in a penalty of 10 points.

The Health Department claims that the purpose of the grading system is to help consumers make more informed choices about their food. However, the grading system fails to articulate important details. For example, the fact that a restaurant which receives a "level 4 violation" could receive the same "A" as a restaurant with a spotless record is obscured by the city's letter grade system. The graded placards, required to be placed at eye-level in the front window of every restaurant, do not specify how many points the establishment received. Unless patrons visit the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's website, they have no way of knowing whether they are eating at a restaurant that received a high or low A, B, or C.

In January 2011, Mayor Bloomberg announced that all restaurants, upon receiving a grade of A, would not be required to pay the fines associated with their food violations. As a result, an establishment that had violations totaling 13 points -- still enough to earn an A grade -- would not have to pay fines, while an establishment that scored just one more point, and was ranked a B, would have to pay. On the subject of waiving these fines, which could potentially be a much-needed source of revenue for the City during tough economic times, John Santalesa of the City's Bureau of Food Safety and Community Sanitation explained, "Restaurants which are issued A letter grades on their initial inspection are recognized by the DOHMH for operating in substantial compliance with sanitary regulations. As such, they are not subject to a possible fine for the results of that inspection."

Though the Health Department advocates rewarding restaurants that receive only a few health code violations, Andrew Jajja, an experienced waiter and kitchen staff person who has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants, disagrees with the City's policy. "Simply giving a grade is not enough; a letter does no good if customers don't understand what it represents. There needs to be more effort put towards raising awareness in the general public of what standards these grades denote. People should be able to trust the letter they read in the window and understand its full meaning."

Nowhere on its website does the Health Department clearly explain what it takes to shut down a restaurant. There are several restaurants with scores over 100 points that are still open to the public. Zoe Tobin, a spokesperson for the Health Department explained, "Restaurants are not closed down based on points alone. The Health Department will close an establishment if it finds serious and persistent violations or an uncorrected public health hazard. The severity of critical violations is also taken into account."

A restaurant is usually closed only if it has committed a level 5 health hazard, such as failing to correct a public health hazard that is identified during the inspection, but there are no strict guidelines to follow. It is in the hands of the individual inspector to determine the severity of the hazard.

In January, a six-month report was released from the Health Department congratulating city restaurants on their outstanding work. When the new inspection standards were implemented, the Department estimated that around one-third of establishments would earn an A in the first year. In fact, the numbers were much higher. The January report documented that 57.2% of restaurants received an A, 30.2% earned a B, and 12.7% received a grade of C. The New York Times and other news organizations published articles on these seemingly impressive results.

Unfortunately their praise came too soon. In May 2011, a new set of inspection results was released by the department, which included all restaurant grades up to May 31st. These scores were a far cry from the results posted in January. In the new tally, 37% of restaurants received an A, 42.5% earned a B, 16% received a C, and 4.5% of restaurants were closed down. These statistics included the restaurants' grades after the tribunal appeals process had been concluded, meaning they were no longer subject to change.

The Health Department still has many restaurants to inspect, and no one knows for certain what scores the following months will bring, but the report published in May seems to be the beginning of a decidedly different trend than the glowing press release trumpeted by the agency in January.

With a public unaware of the restaurant grading system's details, and a mayor determined to help businesses, even those committing health code violations, it is hard to determine how useful the system is in informing the public's food choices.

"I assumed that if a restaurant got an 'A' it must mean that it doesn't have any health violations," said Brooklyn resident Kristen Shaw, 22. "If that's not the case, I think the whole letter system is pretty deceptive."