New York City’s health commissioner predicted at a city council budget hearing Tuesday that revenue from inspection fines at restaurants will drop about 25 percent in the current fiscal year.
Thomas Farley told Councilman David Greenfield (D-Brooklyn) that the restaurant inspection process has been reformed after numerous complaints raised by elected officials, restaurant owners and the news media over the past year.
In theory and possibly in fact, inspections are there to protect the public. Diners do breathe a little easier when they see that in the window of their favorite eatery is a poster bearing a big letter “A.” The Health Department’s unannounced inspections, conducted at least once a year, are to rate the restaurants’ compliance in food handling, food temperature, personal hygiene and vermin control. The lower the score, the better the grade.
However, some restaurant owners complain that the process is being abused. Over the past year, local restaurant owners have contacted elected officials with examples of unfair actions or fines. One owner complained of being cited for having a wet floor after he had just finished mopping. Fines were issued for food that was too hot, even though it was hot because it had just come out of the oven.
One restaurant owner recounted that an inspector used bleach to destroy a large shipment of cheese 15 minutes after it was delivered, claiming that it was not at the correct temperature and causing the owner a loss of thousands of dollars. The store ownerfrustration was compounded when a different inspector said he would not have thrown the cheese out.
Greenfield noted at the hearing that fines issued to restaurant owners for health violations have increased dramatically over the past few years, from $27.7 million in 2009 to $52.4 million last year. He asked Farley if it was because of a greater number of unsanitary restaurants, more rigorous enforcement, or other factors.
Farley said that the frequency of inspections did increase after the letter grade system was instituted, but predicted that revenue from inspection fines will drop to about $40 million in the current fiscal year.
“We have received very specific complaints about arbitrary rules, different standards from different inspectors, lots of focus on non-food safety items and other issues,” Greenfield said.