City Missed Inspecting 1 of Every 5 Restaurants

Source of Article:  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/28/nyregion/28inspect.html

By SIMON AKAM

Published: July 27, 2009

The city’s health department failed to inspect one in every five restaurants during the 2008 fiscal year, according to an audit issued by the city comptroller’s office on Monday. Inspectors are supposed to make unannounced annual visits to the city’s restaurants. But 22 percent of the restaurants slipped through the cracks that fiscal year, the audit found.

 “The Health Department is charged with protecting the health and well-being of New Yorkers, but, unfortunately, its internal controls for ensuring that health code violations at restaurants are corrected in a timely manner were found to be flawed,” the comptroller, William C. Thompson Jr., said in a statement.

The Bureau of Food Safety and Community Sanitation, part of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, is responsible for inspecting food-service establishments, which include mobile units and cafeterias at schools and senior centers as well as restaurants.

If violations are found during a review, inspectors are supposed to return in 14 to 45 days to determine whether the violations have been corrected.

According to documents provided by the comptroller’s office, 5,838 restaurants failed at least one sanitary inspection during the 2008 fiscal year.

The audit, reported in The Daily News on Monday, investigated a sample of 62 restaurants that failed inspections. In all but two cases, inspectors made follow-up visits, but 20 percent of them were reinspected more than 45 days after the initial inspection.

“It is important to ensure that compliance inspections are performed timely,” Mr. Thompson said. “Otherwise the danger that food-borne illness could occur as a result of unsanitary conditions being allowed to continue is increased.”

He added, “It may be necessary for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to make modifications to ensure that inspections are performed in a uniform manner.”

The health department acknowledged that it had failed to reach its target during the 2008 fiscal year. According to the department’s figures, inspectors examined 80.1 percent of food service establishments in that period.

However, the department said that in each fiscal year from 2004 to 2007, it inspected about 99 percent of food-service establishments, and that it had returned to that level in the 2009 fiscal year.

A spokeswoman for the department said the 2008 dip was a result of the need to make more follow-up visits.

The health department questioned the comptroller’s assertion that only 80 percent of compliance inspections occurred within the 14-to-45-day time frame.

The department’s own analysis from the 2008 fiscal year found that 95.7 percent occurred within the required period.

A statement released by the department suggested that the discrepancy between the comptroller’s findings and their own was due to the small size of the audit’s sample.

Marion Nestle, a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, said food inspections play a crucial deterrent role, forcing restaurant owners to maintain high standards.

However, she suggested that not all of the criteria by which establishments are judged are equally significant.

“Cooking food to proper temperature and storing food to proper temperature are important food-safety matters,” she said. “Other things seem less important, like whether you stack forks with the fork part up or down.”

Beginning next July, all restaurants in New York will be required to post a sanitary grade in their windows, a measure already adopted elsewhere. Professor Nestle supports such public ratings.

“Places like Los Angeles that give grades have a lot more clout,” she said. “You go to a B place, you better eat your food hot.”

Related

Audit by the New York City Comptroller (pdf)

 

 

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