THE BRONX — Food poisoning is on the decline since the city launched its controversial restaurant grading program in 2010, health officials claimed Tuesday amid continued complaints over the inspection process and skyrocketing fines.
Salmonella infections fell by 14 percent in 2011, hitting their lowest level in two decades, according to a new study released by the city's Health Department a day before a planned City Council hearing regarding problems with the letter grades, which are awarded based on how many health violations a restaurant receives.
The decrease in infections, which is nearly identical to what Los Angeles tracked after it put a similar system in place, came as rates have held steady elsewhere in New York State, New Jersey and Connecticut, Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said.
In addition to the salmonella drop, inspectors noted a 10-percent drop in the number of restaurants receiving violations for signs of mice and fewer infractions for cockroaches, cross-contamination, keeping food too hot or cold, and inadequate hand-washing since the grading began.
“Kitchens across the city are cleaner. More restaurants than ever are making the top grades,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg at a press conference touting the benefits of the letters, at the "A"-rated Zero Otto Nove restaurant on Arthur Avenue in The Bronx.
“The proof is in the pudding, and more than ever, the pudding is being prepared according to the highest food safety standards,” he added.
The findings come as restaurant owners continue to rail over the regulations, which many slam as unreasonable, arbitrarily handed down and nothing more than a revenue-raising scheme.
Restaurant fines have been rising dramatically, soaring from $27,610 in fiscal year 2007 to $42,392 in 2011 — a 53.5 percent spike, according to the Department of Health.
The complaints have raised alarms at the City Council, which will be holding a long-awaited hearing Wednesday regarding restaurant owners’ concerns.
"I applaud any and all efforts to make restaurants safer. However, the Dept. of Health's own data shows a wide variability in inspection grades from inspector to inspector in the same restaurant and an enormous increase in fines,” City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said in a statement.
“While I support restaurant letter grading and the purpose that it serves, I am very concerned that the inspections are inconsistent and have become a revenue generator for the city at the expense of restaurant owners,” she continued, noting that fines are up 145 percent since fiscal year 2006.
“We can protect public health without shutting down businesses."
The mayor, meanwhile, stressed that more than 72 percent of the city’s restaurants are now earning "A" grades, up from 65 percent a year ago. He said that fewer restaurant owners are paying fines, with 59 percent paying fines in 2011 versus 81 percent before the grading began.
He also noted that, while many claimed the grades would hurt the restaurant industry, total restaurant sales in the city increased by 9.3 percent — or $800 million — in the first nine months of grading versus the previous year.
A new study from Baruch College also found that 91 percent of New Yorkers approve of the grading system and that 88 percent consider a restaurant’s grade before sitting down to a meal, he said.
Asked to respond to claims the inspections amounted to “borderline harassment,” the mayor scoffed.
“I think the fact is that that there are some people that complain because they don’t want to keep their restaurants clean," he said. "They think it’s OK to have mice and roaches and dirt and not have people wash their hands before they come back from the bathroom, and that’s just simply unacceptable."
Bloomberg further explained a local restaurant's recent drop from an "A" grade to "B" grade hasn’t stopped him buying his morning coffee there, but warned others aren't as forgiving.
“I have friends who say they were going to a restaurant, they got there and saw a "B" or a "C" in the window and changed their mind and went somewhere else,” he said.
The city’s Health Department is also considering slapping the city’s food trucks with "A," "B" and "C" grades, just like brick-and-mortar eateries.
“I think people want to see the process go onto other places where they get food,” Bloomberg said.
Farley previously raised concerns about the practicality of issuing grades to food trucks, since surprise inspections would be hard to plan. But he seemed more open Tuesday to the idea, which he discussed as part of a larger effort to enhance inspections of mobile food.
"We're looking into the possibility of letter grading the trucks," he said.
To make the grades more accessible, the city has also launched a new iPhone app, ABCEats NYC, which lets health-conscious New Yorkers check restaurants’ grades and most recent inspection results on the go.