As of last Wednesday, NYC restaurant patrons are now able to choose dinner based not only on reviews of cuisine and service, but also on information about restaurant cleanliness. Each restaurant will receive a health department letter grade, ranging from a coveted A to an unwanted C, which will be displayed in prominent locations of entrances to dining establishments.
One of the most interesting features of the rating system is a new website, where patrons can view information about each restaurant’s latest inspection, including its egregious violations (think rodents, roaches). The system’s advanced search options allow users to compare eateries’ ratings using parameters such as cuisine or zip code, thus helping diners gain greater control over the food they consume, as well as the businesses they choose to support. The website uses the same rating system for 5-star restaurants to burger joints, and has the potential to dispel myths about the perceived cleanliness of establishments.
A similar system piloted in Los Angeles in 1998, as well as the NYC Health Department’s own six-month research process, reflects a growing public concern about holding restaurants accountable to the clientele they serve. Not surprisingly, many restaurants themselves oppose the new system, claiming that it will harm B- and C-rated restaurants and that it allows for too much government intrusion. Others agree – TIME calls New York and Los Angeles “downright draconian in their urge to oversee the inner workings of small businesses like restaurants.”
This is a red herring. Hand-wringing over big versus little government gets a bit off-topic, largely ignoring the fact that even those who oppose government oversight may still care about what they put into their bodies. Given the fact that restaurant inspection records have always been public (albeit more difficult to find), the new system is more about increased visibility, and is a clear victory regarding consumer rights.
Furthermore, a 2003 study found that there was a 20 percent decline in hospital admissions for food-borne illness after the letter grade system in Los Angeles was introduced. Considering that 11,000 people in New York City go to hospitals each year for food-borne illnesses related to eating out, the new rating system provides a promising and necessary step towards pushing dirty kitchens to clean up, or close doors.