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Find Out What Lies Behind Your Favorite NYC Restaurant's Letter Grade

New York City is planning to make a restaurant's hygiene violations available via scannable bar code. Good idea or not?

Less than a year since New York debuted its restaurant hygiene letter grading system, the city is planning an upgrade: scannable barcodes that will reveal the specifics of each violation.

The New York Daily News quotes city spokeswoman Erin Hughes, who confirmed that "the Health Department is exploring the possibility of putting bar codes on restaurant letter grades that would take consumers directly to a restaurant's latest [inspection] results."

Customers who want to know what exactly lies behind their favorite restaurant's grade would no longer have to navigate the Health Department's website. Instead, they would simply hold their smartphones up to the placard and read off the applicable violations, which can range from an improperly displayed Food Protection Certificate to the slightly more disturbing "food preparation area contaminated by sewage."

Interestingly, the New York Times' FiveThirtyEight blog recently analyzed the effectiveness city's restaurant grading system, and found it "too coarse."

It masks wide variations in the quality of restaurants receiving the same grade, making it hard to say quite what it means to be an A-rated restaurant in New York City. [...] A restaurant receiving any score from 0 to 13 points gets an A, but the difference from one end of that range to the other is substantial. A zero score means that inspectors found no violations at all, while 13 points means they found a host of concerns. A (hypothetical) restaurant where hot food items were not being held above the required temperature of 140 degrees, toxic chemicals were improperly labeled or stored in a way that contamination of the food might occur, and the restroom had no toilet paper or trash can would get 12 points, according to the inspection system outlined in the Blue Book—and qualify for an A.


What's more, the Times noted "a suspicious distribution of restaurants near the cut-off point between an A and a B," with only 381 restaurants scoring a perfect zero, while 1,733 just squeaked an A-grade with 12 or 13 points. Chances are, in other words, that if you're dining at an A-grade restaurant, it probably still has very close to a B-grade's worth of violations.

The Times notes that arbitrary cut-offs are inevitable in a grading system, but proposes a more nuanced scale, in which restaurants can score an A- or a B+ (their chart, above, shows how the city's restaurants would fare on this scale based on their current violation totals). But making the details of a restaurant's violations easily accessible on consumers' smartphones is, I think, an even better solution. After all, it will allow diners to not only understand that an A-grade restaurants may well still have troubling hygiene violations, but also decide for themselves the relative importance of live roaches versus properly displayed hand-washing signs.

Chart created by The New York Times FiveThirtyEight blog; story via PSFK.

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