In a 2014 op-ed in Crain's,
Unfortunately the Department of Health still hasn’t implemented sensible regulatory reforms to the system, despite issuing a record number of A letter grades. Now the City Council is stepping in to do so.
The council will hold a public hearing today on a bill to reform the letter grade process. The legislation will provide consistency and apply the same due process to the initial inspection that is used by all other agencies that issue violations, and even by the Department of Health during its re-inspection process.
If this standard had been applied when we published our op-ed nearly three years ago, approximately 2,000 restaurants that successfully contested their inspector’s allegations in 2014 alone would have been awarded an A grade in the first place, sparing them and the Department of Health the time and expense of re-inspections. The agency could have instead focused on re-inspecting restaurants that pose a real risk to public health, not A-grade establishments.
This was highlighted in a 2012 op-ed, “The Restaurant Grade System is Broken,” by law professor Daniel E. Ho, who collaborated with researchers at New York University, Stanford and Yale law schools to analyze hundreds of thousands of restaurant inspections from around the country. Ho's piece challenged the usefulness of New York City's letter grades and added that it was "perhaps more disconcerting" that "grading appears to shift inspection resources away from the worst offenders."
Also troubling is that many more restaurants than those who successfully challenged their violations should have been awarded an A on their initial inspection but were not. When the adjudication of an initial inspection cannot result in a letter grade, the city offers to lower fines if restaurants waive their right to a tribunal hearing. This incentivizes restaurants to pay even if they did not deserve to.
The City Council’s proposal would make the inspection process fairer by changing the point values of violations so they better reflect impact on food safety. It would eliminate penalty points for low-level violations that don’t relate to food safety or jeopardize public health and should not count toward the letter grade.
Progressive regulatory reform fosters a healthier business environment. Penalties associated with violations should reflect their severity, and enforcement should be focused on education. This regulatory approach has proven effective at other city agencies such as the Department of Consumer Affairs. The council bill would extend this approach to the Department of Health’s inspections of restaurants while maintaining the agency's authority to act when it has a reasonable belief that an increased risk to public health exists.