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Department of Health Letter Grades, Contextualized

Foodborne illnesses kill 3,000 people in the U.S. annually, the Department of Agriculture estimates. That's a big number, and that's why it's reassuring that the New York City Department of Health inspects over 26,000 local food service establishments every year in a mostly noble (but sometimes misguided) effort to protect diners from undercooked poultry, trans fats, tobacco smoke, waiters with oozing sores, soiled washrooms, room temperature terrines, funky shellfish, illegally-imported hams, and just about everything else imaginable, including live animals in the dining room, which is violation category 4O. Every restaurant is inspected at least once a year and receives a grade of A (0-13 points), B (14-27 points) or C (28 or more points).

This all sounds logical enough, but in practice things get a bit murkier, with a complex set of rules dictating when a restaurant actually has to change its formal letter grade, and with certain violations coming at the expense of good taste. As such, Eater and Vox Product, taking advantage of NYC's Open Data initiative, have teamed up to create an app that more logically interprets, with a proper dose of context and criticism, past and present DOH violations. Allow us to explain:

1. We've Created Tons of Fun Icons to Make Restaurant Violations more Understandable

Just as diners find letter grades more intuitive than numerical scores, we believe that clever symbols can facilitate the comprehension of written violations. If a restaurant has rats, we've created rodent icons so the violation stands out. If a culinary establishment is plagued by diseased workers, we show a drawing of a guy who doesn't look so good. If a restaurant is found to have tobacco use in the kitchen, we show a picture of a lit cigarette. If a restaurant interferes with the work of a DOH employee (or hides its letter grade), we publish an icon of some jerk covering someone else's eyes.

2. We Replace Grade-Pending Cards and Non-Scored Violations With Two Annoying Emoji

Currently, restaurants have two chances to receive an A during each inspection cycle. If a restaurant receives anything less than an "A" on its first inspection, that visit is scored but no "B" or "C" is issued until that venue has been given the chance to improve its sanitary conditions. Problem is, reinspection can take a month or longer. Furthermore, if the "B" or "C" grade is formally issued upon reinspection, the restaurant still doesn't have to post the grade until confirmed via administrative tribunal; it can instead post a euphemistic "grade pending" card.

The letter grade system is better at helping restaurants receive an "A" than informing the consumer when something is wrong

The letter grade system, as it stands, is better suited to helping a restaurant receive an "A" than it is at informing the consumer when something has gone wrong. So to help make health code violations more accessible we've created our own two Eater grades for some of these grey zones.

The Poker Face: We apply this custom Eater Grade to restaurants receiving 14 points or worse (i.e. the equivalent of at least a "B") on initial inspections, grade-pending scenarios, inspections at restaurants not yet open to the public that would have resulted a B or C, or inspections at restaurants seeking to re-open after closed by the DOH.

The Shrug: This Eater Grade is for when a restaurant's inspection was neither graded nor scored (i.e. often involving only administrative violations regarding trans-fats and tobacco use), or for when a restaurant received the equivalent of an "A" during a pre-opening inspection (13 points or fewer).

4. We Highlight the Lowest Yearly Grades on the Interactive Navigation Bars

Health grades shouldn't just be a snapshot that highlight a restaurant's most recent inspection; they should show a culinary establishment's failures over a longer period of time. Just as a bank might ask for the credit history of anyone applying for a loan, and just as most businesses might ask whether prospective employees have previously been convicted of major crimes, you'd like to know if a restaurant had a rat infestation in the past year or two. But currently, the DOH only displays the current grade when you query its online database. And clicking through doesn't show past letter grades, only past scores.

So we've simplified things. Anyone who searches for the letter grade of a given restaurant using Eater's app will automatically see not just the current letter grade, but also the lowest grades for each the past five years, which is particularly informative because it's entirely likely that many of the restaurants kept a "grade pending" card in their windows for much of the time during which they held a B or a C.

What we're doing here is making the worst scores among the most accessible scores, because, as a consumer, if even you don't necessarily agree with all of the DOH's determinations, you'd like to have the most transparent path to finding out how poor an inspector deemed the sanitary state of any given institution.

5. We'll Let You Know When the DOH Might've Gone too Far

Food safety can come at the expense of taste. This is, to an extent, inevitable. Just as a government's pursuit of security for its citizens can roll back certain freedoms, a health department's efforts to prevent the spread of foodborne illness can restrict a restaurant's ability to cook food certain ways. We accept these tradeoffs in as much as they keep us alive, and free from vomiting in our Ubers. But the bigger question is whether the DOH's tough rules, especially on food temperature, are needlessly resulting in New Yorkers eating crappy food at very good restaurants, and causing low-margin culinary establishments to pay steep fines for their transgressions.

One of most common "critical" violations is cold food items being held above 41 degrees fahrenheit "except during necessary preparation." Smart restaurants argue that the tempering of meats and fish is part of that necessary preparation process. Sometimes that explanation flies with the inspectors. And sometimes it doesn't, as insufficiently cold food is among the most cited violations by respected sushi restaurants and tasting menu venues. Such a rule also has a chilling effect, literally and figuratively, on the way we eat; the food temperature rule is often cited, by chefs and gastronomes, as a primary reason for restaurants serving cold sandwiches, cold sushi, cold Iberico ham, cold terrines, cold cheeses and cold butter. So next to this violation, we have placed a steaming pile of poop with horns on it, to indicate an infraction that is potentially BS.

Other transgressions carrying the BS logo are restaurants forgetting to put up the "employees mush wash hands sign" in the restroom, not eliminating bare hand contact with food that won't subsequently be heated up (i.e. not using gloves, even though washing hands can be more effective in preventing cross-contamination), using raw milk (a practice that's banned in New York, but allowed in California), cooking foods to inadequate temperatures, and kitchens possessing inadequate lighting. Keep in mind that while our arguments in this regard are often gastronomic, the Department of Health's arguments are more scientific, intended to protect against the lowest common denominator; you wouldn't want a regional manager from Burger King curing his own jowl bacon on the fire escape.

And here it's worth noting, alas, that while this critic has never gotten sick from soft butter, room temperature tuna belly, or barely chilled pate, holding foods between 41F and 140F for extended periods of time is conducive to the proliferation of disease-causing bacteria. The question of course, is how long is too long. The Department, to its credit, adjusted its temperature rules in 2010 to allow for the holding of cold food above 41F for six hours and hot food below 140F for four hours if certain timing rules are met.

Thing is, restaurants opting for this larger window must keep burdensome labeling logs for each item, and goods cannot be returned to hot or cold storage after this option is selected. This is a mostly positive development, but the fact that the DOH now allows for foods to be served at these temperatures likely means that many good restaurants haven't been jeopardizing our health all along, and the public should know that these venues are sometimes being issued embarrassing food temperature violation points and costly fines for what are essentially administrative, record-keeping oversights. To the DOH, a paperwork mistake is no different from a full-fledged temperature violation. As such, we're continuing to keep our potential BS rating on this rule.

And it's also worth keeping in mind that there's a higher incidence of listeria poisoning in Europe, where raw milk is permitted, than in the U.S., where rules governing its use are stricter. So our BS icon doesn't mean the DOH (or New York State law) is wrong, it just means we think that the department might've gone too far, and that, in some regards, we believe chefs and consumers should have more of a say in what they cook, and what goes in their bodies.

Check Out Eater's Health Inspection Tool Right Here!

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