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Inside the Day of an NYC Restaurant Health Inspector

He sees docking points as a “potential life-or-death” situation for diners

A “grade pending” sign on a restaurant

To many in the restaurant industry, health inspectors are pests — with restaurateurs alleging that they dock points sometimes simply based on mood. But in a new piece on inspectors in the Times, one Department of Health employee defends the job: “‘I’m not all-powerful. The power is in the hands of the restaurants’ to improve their food safety.”

Bronx resident and longtime inspector Fayik Suleman, who is profiled in the piece and has worked for the department for eight years, adds that he feels no shame in shutting down a restaurant for violations. “How do you expect me to feel bad? You have a set of rules, and if you are not following those rules, you deserve what you get,” he says.

Since 2010, inspectors have graded restaurants in NYC and published the results online in a public database. Almost immediately, restaurateurs condemned the process as a punitive system and a money-making ploy for the city. Now, the city employs about 100 inspectors for some 25,000 restaurants, and although health grades for restaurants are on the rise, tension still exists between inspectors and restaurant owners.

Suleman and a woman named Meena Wheeler-Rivera, who teaches inspectors, both say that the amount they know about food safety impacts their feelings on doling out violations and dining out. In one class, inspectors learn about clostridium botulinium — a bacteria that can show up if a food has been left out for too long. It can lead to paralysis and eventually death.

Wheeler-Rivera doesn’t eat at restaurants much anymore as a result, and Suleman keeps those “potential life-or-death consequences” in mind when looking for violations, the profile says. “I don’t think there is any inspector who takes pride in closing down a restaurant,” he says. “But imagine food not being cooked to the right temperature, and someone getting very sick. That would make me feel even more guilty.”

Still, restaurateurs in the Times piece say that the process can be unfair, arguing that they don’t seem consistent inspection to inspection.

The piece is full of little tidbits from the day-to-day life of a health inspector; take a full look here.