New York City Says Restaurant Grading Reduces Salmonella

New York City says that its restaurant grading system has reduced the incidence of Salmonella poisoning cases in the metropolis.

The system, which involves bestowing letter grades to thousands of Manhattan restaurants of all sizes has improved business and led to a decline in salmonellosis cases, said the city’s mayor and health officials, wrote The Washington Post. Some city council members, however, say the system is imperfect and are calling for review. Restaurant industry representatives say there are far too many inspections and fines, which are prohibitive to small business, said The Post.

Andrew Rigie, a New York State Restaurant Association spokesman described the grading system as punitive and financially burdensome on small business owners. “If you define success as taxing small business owners and making their lives miserable, then letter grades have been a complete success,” Rigie told The Post in an email. The Association represents 4,000 Manhattan restaurants, added Rigie, who said he hopes the City Council “will take a more enlightened approach toward public health.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas A. Farley, and other health officials released initial data on the system this week, which revealed that Salmonella infections decreased by 13.5% in the first full year of use, wrote The Post. According to the Health Department, 1,296 Salmonellosis cases were reported in 2010; early data reveals a total of 1,121 cases in 2011.

Officials also said that more than 72% percent of Manhattan’s 24,000 restaurants received an A, versus 65% last year; restaurant sales also increased by 9.3% from June 2010 to February 2011, according to recent tax data, said The Post.

“It just may be that clean kitchens are as good for business as clean air is when a restaurant is smoke-free,” Bloomberg said at a news conference held at Bronx’s Zero Otto Nove, The Post said. The letter grades were first handed out in July 2010, with restaurants receiving an A, B, or C. The system is point-based and looks at sanitary conditions. Restaurants must post the grades in a visible area; for instance, said The Post, a street-facing window or door. Sanitary violations can include food being stored at improper temperatures or vermin.

Although she supports the system, Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, did voice some criticism, saying the data reveal “a wide variability” in grades from “inspector to inspector in the same restaurant and an enormous increase in fines,” The Post reported. Health Department officials said fines are on the decline as food safety practices are improving and inspectors complete rigorous training; computerized inspection worksheets must be used for each restaurant.

Inspection findings can be contested and grades changed via an administrative tribunal where a “grade pending” sign will replace the letter grade. Repeat C grades lead to increased inspections, The Post noted. Severe problems that are not correctable during inspection—for instance, insufficient refrigeration—could lead to restaurant shutdown.

The most common symptoms of Salmonella poisoning—salmonellosis—are diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever, with symptoms manifesting, usually, within six to 72 hours. Additional symptoms include chills, headache, nausea, and vomiting that can last up to seven days. The illness usually lasts four to seven days; however, in some, the organism can invade the bloodstream, becoming so severe that hospitalization is required.

Sometimes, infection with the Salmonella pathogen can result in, and produce more severe or chronic illnesses. Salmonella, can be dangerous, sometimes deadly, leaving sufferers with serious life-long health issues. Salmonellosis, one of the most common bacterial food borne illnesses, can be especially life threatening to those with weakened immune systems, such as infants, the elderly, and persons with HIV infection or who are undergoing chemotherapy.

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