If you want to see restaurant inspections done right, travel to New York City.
There you will see the results of an aggressive City Health Department inspection program that allows the public to tell at a glance the sanitary conditions in the restaurants they are entering.
In July, the New York's Department of Health began a letter-grade system for the city's 24,000 restaurants. Department inspectors are in the process of visiting each food establishment and giving them grades - ranging from A to C - that must be posted in a spot visible to the public. If they do not, the restaurants are fined $1,000.
Also, give New York City an "A" for public disclosure. They have an easily navigable web site that offers information about every restaurant in the city, the results of recent health inspections, and a letter-grade, if it has been applied. Here is the link to the NYC Health Department's restaurant web site.
According to department spokeswoman Zoe Tobin, it will probably take a year before every restaurant gets a letter grade simply because the new program requires a re-inspection of each food establishment in the city.
Even before the letter-grade system was started, the department made it easier for the public to understand violations - certainly much easier than in Philadelphia - by assigning a numeric value to each violation - a small number for minor ones, higher numbers for "critical violations" -- and posting the scores online.
Restaurants that got a score in the 30's were closed by the department until they corrected their violations. Since the letter-grade program began, about seven percent of the New York Restaurants inspected have been closed because of food health hazards, according to Tobin.
Let's compare and contrast Philadelphia with New York City:
As disclosed later in this series, the Philadelphia Health Department will not release information on restaurants that are temporarily closed until they correct violations. The New York Health Department does.
Philadelphia will not release information on fines levied on repeat violators, saying that is a matter for the courts. The New York Health Department does.
Philadelphia has 35 inspectors for 12,000 food establishments within city limits. On average, that means each inspector must inspect 342 establishments each year - often twice or more, especially if there are violations. New York has double the number of restaurants, but five times the number of inspectors. On average, these 180 New York inspectors must inspect 133 restaurants each, a ratio that allows for more frequent inspections.
New York has a web site that is user-friendly and stocked with details about each establishment, including photos of the restaurant and locator maps. Philadelphia's web site, which is maintained by the state Department of Agriculture, is incomplete. Since it went up in February, 2009, it has inspections posted for 7,888 Philadelphia food establishments, about 4,000 short of the total number in the city.
Dr. Thomas Farley, the commissioner of health in New York City, said the department spent $3.2 million on the expanded letter-grade program, including hiring 23 additional inspectors, in the hope that public pressure will "force restaurants to be diligent about good food-safety practices."
There is evidence the system does that. When the City of Los Angeles adopted a letter system in 1998, only 40 percent of the restaurants got an A. One year later, it rose to 70 percent, and within four years it was at 80 percent.
In August, after the first 250 restaurants in New York City were letter-graded, 48 percent earned A's for their sanitary practices, while 31 percent got B's, according to health Department data..
"Overall," Farley said at the time, "we consider these numbers very encouraging."
Like Philadelphia, New York also is operating a "risk-based" system. Restaurants that get an A will not be inspected again for another 12 months, so the department inspectors can concentrate on those that get B's and C's or flunk the inspection totally.
As the graphic shows, inspectors are quick to react to a restaurant that fails inspections. The Burger Barn in the Bronx was inspected late last year and was assessed 34 points for seven violations, including evidence of the presence of live roaches.
Thirteen days later is was re-inspected and earned zero points.
In Philadelphia, according to the public data, several months can pass before a facility is re-inspected.
Needless to say, restaurants in New York were not happy with the letter-grade system when it was announced. The state restaurant association threatened suit. The department adjusted its program to meet restaurant complaints. Restaurants that want to contest their low grades can appeal to an administrative board in the Health Department and post a "Grade Pending" sign while the appeal is in process.
But, Health Department officials said the public has reacted well to the new system. Letter-grade signs are going to become part of the landscape in New York City - and apparently a fashion accessory. The apparel web site Zazzle.com is already offering for sale a tote bag emblazoned with the Health Department's letter A.
Tommorrow: Exposing the gaps in Philadelphia's restaurant inspection program.