The Alphabetized War on Food-Borne Pathogens

When terrorists strike in other cities, no matter how far away, New Yorkers shudder. It’s reasonable for them to wonder if they may be next. So train bombings in, say, London or Madrid, lead automatically to more vigorous police patrols in our own subways.

The Day

Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.

Is there a similar effect when the threat comes from germs, not homicidal fanatics? To be specific, did the recent outbreak of an especially lethal strain of E. coli in Germany put health officials here on higher alert, and perhaps food stores and restaurants as well?

Not really. There was no detectable “spillover effect” that made New Yorkers warier, said Daniel Kass, a deputy commissioner in the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

All the same, the deaths and illnesses in Europe had us thinking about one of the health department’s more visible efforts in the war on food-borne pathogens — namely, its letter grades for restaurants. This system will be one year old next month. You have seen the brightly colored placards on front windows all over town, each bearing an A, B or C to rate an establishment’s cleanliness as determined by department inspectors.

The city has about 24,000 restaurants and bars — roughly one for every 340 residents — and 20,000 or so have been rated thus far, Mr. Kass said. As he sees it, the system has been “going terrifically.” A department survey at the six-month mark, in January, found that 57 percent of inspected restaurants had earned A’s, and another 30 percent received B’s. Those results, officials said then, were better than they had expected.

Places that don’t score well are given a chance to correct infractions and thereby improve their grades in a second inspection. “We really didn’t set this out to be punitive,” Mr. Kass said in an interview. “We set this out to incentivize food safety, and I think the data suggests this is happening.”

Tim Zagat, the restaurant survey publisher, agrees. “At first, restaurants were all scared to death,” said Mr. Zagat, who wrote an opinion article in this newspaper last year telling restaurateurs that they would be “woefully misguided” if they fought the new system.

“The fact that it scares the restaurants is probably a good thing,” he said in an interview, “because it causes them to pay attention to health issues more than they used to.”

Still, there are pockets of resistance. On Tuesday, the health department announced that hundreds of places were stubbornly refusing to post the required placards. It said that a sweep of restaurants had led to 704 violations being issued for this failure, each carrying a fine of up to $1,000. Another 100 restaurants were cited for putting the grades in locations where they could not be easily seen.

By law, these cards are supposed to be out front within five feet of an establishment’s entrance, and four to six feet off the ground. In short, at eye level. Some places are putting the cards at eye level for a small dog.

Undoubtedly, many more violators are out there. “We will find them,” Mr. Kass said.

It will probably come as no shock to hear that by the far the largest number of transgressors — 404 of the 704 non-posters — had received grades of C. But what gives with 23 refuseniks who were given A’s? Don’t these people know how to take yes for an answer?

While we’re at it, how should a diner view a C-rated restaurant? Is that the department’s way of saying: Enter at your own risk?

Mr. Kass chose circumspection. Compared with an A, he said, a C “basically communicates less comfort that, absent supervision, they’re paying attention in the way we think they should for the purpose of protecting the public’s health.”

O.K. But what did Mr. Zagat think? “I wouldn’t go into a C,” he said.


For full local Times coverage, including a profile of the woman who says she was sexually assaulted by Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the latest on Albany’s same-sex marriage lineup, see the N.Y./Region section.

Here’s what City Room is reading in other papers and blogs this morning.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg offers a deal to prevent layoffs. [Daily News]

Comptroller John C. Liu has rejected the Education Department’s $2.7 million contract with a company overseen by former Chancellor Joel I. Klein. [Daily News]

An immigrant trying to get his wife and son out of the Ivory Coast has to prove they are family, via a DNA test. [Daily News]

It is not just about the diploma: Graduation rates climbed to 61 percent, but only 21 percent of students are ready for college. [Daily News]

A poll says 60 percent of Americans want Representative Anthony D. Weiner out of Congress. [New York Post]

Mr. Weiner is scheduled to give a graduation speech at Brooklyn Tech. [DNA Info]

There could be a third gunman in the Brighton Beach shootout. [New York Post]

Two Manhattan men forced a 16-year-old girl into prostitution, the authorities said. [New York Post]

Brooklyn Bridge Park hunts for new ways to cover its $16 million in yearly costs. [Wall Street Journal]

The elite Spence girls school wants to build a glass atrium. Neighbors object. [DNA Info]

After lying empty for years, the old Footlight Records spot is now home to a real estate agency. [Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York]

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